Cooking with herbs can take any dish to the next level, and now is the perfect time to grow a variety of them. On today's "Ciscoe Save Me!", gardening guru Ciscoe Morris shows us how to plant, harvest, and store basil.
Like many folks, I'm obsessed with basil. The word basil comes from basileus, the Greek word for king, and I feel like a king when I am eating pesto made from homegrown basil. A tender herb, basil will die or at least be seriously maimed if you plant it outdoors before nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. As long as you provide it with a hot, sunny location, and plenty of water, basil is among the easiest of herbs to grow in the garden or in a container. Steady, slow growth is the key to great taste, so amend the soil with compost and forgo the fertilizer. Basil contains the most oils when harvested before the flowers occur. Fortunately, the best way to delay flowering, as well as to encourage branching and new growth, is to harvest regularly by snipping off the end of the branches. The best time to harvest is mid-morning, right after the dew has dried, but before the afternoon sun bakes the oils out. At some point later in summer, flowering will begin in earnest. Then it's time to harvest the entire crop, as flavor will go down hill soon afterwards.
There are 30 different varieties of basil to choose from. Here are 10 of my favorites.
- 'African Blue' Dramatic purple-streaked leaves, pink to purple flowers and a warm camphor scent make this tall variety a stand out in the garden and in bouquets.
- 'Cinnamon' Attractive landscape plant with purple stems and flowers and a distinctive cinnamon taste and scent. Best in fruit salads, herbal teas and Mediterranean dishes.
- 'Genovese' Classic large-leaf Italian type with highly aromatic leaves and spicy flavor. Excellent for fresh or frozen use and one of the best for pesto.
- 'Holy Basil' Also known as ‘Sacred’ basil or tulsi (O. sanctum). Stunning in the landscape and very aromatic, with clove-scented leaves. Best used as a salad garnish or in herbal teas.
- 'Italian Large Leaf' Excellent Italian type is extremely productive; large green leaves are slightly sweeter than those of other basil. A favorite for cooking.
- 'Lemon' Compact plant has smaller leaves than other types and a strong lemony scent. The strains ‘Mrs. Burns’ and ‘Sweet Dani’ have slightly larger leaves better suited to cooking. Great for fish, chicken, vegetable and fruit dishes, or use to accent soups, salads and desserts. Makes a tasty, lemony pesto.
- 'Mammoth' Extra-large, slightly puckered leaves can be used in cooking to wrap other ingredients, or like lettuce in sandwiches; also great in salads and pesto.
- 'Red Rubin' An improved form of ‘Dark Opal’ with the largest leaves of purple basil. Very ornamental in the garden; fragrant and flavorful.
Purple-bronze leaves make a unique-colored pesto and a pretty vinegar.
- 'Siam Queen' The best of the Thai-type basil; licorice aroma and flavor are especially good in fish and beef dishes. Wonderful in curries and Thai cuisine.
- 'Spicy Globe' Ideal for pots, window boxes or a miniature basil hedge. Compact plants grow just 10 inches tall with small leaves and a rounded form.
You always harvest more than you can use, so the easiest way to preserve the basil is to take about 2 handfuls of leaves and soak in a bowl of water to remove any dirt. Pat dry with paper towel.
Finely chop the basil. Put it in a bowl and add enough good-quality olive oil to cover the basil. Mix it thoroughly.
Spoon the mix into an ice cube tray. Note: you'll never want to use this tray to make normal ice cubes again. Two handfuls of basil normally fills about 14 ice cube chambers. top up with olive oil if needed.
Store the basil ice cubes in ziplock bags in the freezer.
You can make the basil into pesto and store it the same way. Pasta or pesto will generally store for about 6 months once frozen.