A true monarch of herbs, appropriately, since its name is derived from Basileus, the Greek word for King. Once you have cooked with it there is no escape, you become addicted and have to restrain yourself from adding it to every dish.
Sweet basil (Ocinum basilicum Labiatae)is a native of south-east Asia and has been cultivated in Europe for about two thousand years, cosseted as much for its medical and culinary qualities as for its supposed powers in witchcraft, superstitions and religious rites. Bush basil (Ocinum minimum) is a miniature variety, no higher than 6-12 inches, more shrubby with a thick mass of small leaves. Sweet basil is more productive and bush basil more adaptable for growing in pots in the house, on balconies or in window boxes.
A pot of basil in an open window or courtyard, growing or picked, will keep away flies and other disagreeable insects, counteract the effects of foods of suspicious “freshness’ and like so many other herbs, is an aid to digestion.
The whole plant has an exotic, spicy, almost disquieting aroma, released by the lightest touch, which you want to imprison in all manner of ways. The fresh, highly pungent leaves, chopped or shredded do for tomatoes, turtle soup and liver, what fresh truffles do for egg and meat dishes. Basil transforms simple dishes and adds subtle piquant undertones particularly to tomato and mushroom sauces and soups. It is an essential ingredient of many French, Italian and Greek dishes…a tantalizing element in stuffing’s, sausages, omelets, soufflés, sauces with fish and chicken and herb butters as well as in green salads. It is a hardship to leave basil out of anything.
Basil is distinctly a solo herb. Only a cooking spoil sport would use another fresh herb at the same time in a salad dish. The fresh leaves should not be cooked but sprinkled at the last moment onto either a cold or hot dish so that the rich, warm, slightly peppery clove fragrance flows straight to the taste buds at it fullest. Of the infinite ways in which it casts its spell, it is considered at its best on a tomato salad.
Though basil is a perennial in warm countries, it has to be pampered as a tender annual in temperate climates and rarely stretches to its possible 2-3 feet. The glossy pale green ovate leaves vary around 2 inches long. The flowers are white or purple tinged, insignificant and should not be allowed to develop, or the plants will be more interested in producing seed pods than succulent leaves. Nip out the centers of the young plants as they grow to encourage them into a bushy shape.
Sow basil seed in the open ground after all frosts or cold-snaps are over, in a sheltered sunny place with well-drained fertile soil. Keep them well watered in dry weather. As both types dislike being transplanted…root disturbance stunts them…it is best to sow a few seeds into individual pots and when they have germinated, pull out the weaklings and leave the rest to grow on in their pots on a windowsill. In this way you can have basil in the home all through the year.
The first breath of frost kills outdoor basil, but you can rescue as many as you have space for by potting them into richer soil than they enjoyed in the garden, cut them back to the first pair of leaves from the base, and bring them indoors to use as you need.
Dried Basil is better than no basil at all, though less pungent than fresh. Pick the leaves when they are young and fresh. Discard any brown or discolored ones. Hang the leaves in bunches in a warm, dry place, away from strong sunlight-an airing cupboard would be ideal. Leave until the leaves are quite dry—the length of time taken to dry them will depend on the temperature and atmosphere of the drying place. When quite dry, crumble into airtight jars and label.
Basil freezes well, wash, scissor or chop the leaves and pack tightly into an ice cube tray. Top with water and freeze. When frozen, turn out into plastic bags and store in the freezer. Take out cubes as required; defrost in a strainer and use as fresh.
Successful Gardening ~
Kali S. Winters