March 2010
Basil- Go beyond the ordinary

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Basil, Ocimum basilicum, is a very popular herb. It may actually be the MOST popular herb, if my plant sales are any indication. Even in the depth of winter, which admittedly is mild in our Texas area, shoppers at the Farmers' Markets ask me for basil plants. I don't grow basil in the winter because even our relatively mild temperatures are too cool for basil to thrive. And, this year was colder than usual for us, and we saw very little sun. So, when I did plant basil back in January, I think, germination was spotty and growth was slow.


Basil Seed Packet

Now, however, the basil is growing quickly and putting on some size. I still haven't planted any out in the garden yet, although I probably could. I just planted our tomato, squash and cucumber plants, so I think the temperatures will not dip below freezing. Basil can be damaged by temperatures in the mid-thirties, though. And, our Spring winds can damage basil when they're out of the North and quite sharp.

Basil is an easy plant to grow from seed. The seed is a pretty shiny black color and large enough to handle easily. Being an annual plant, the seed germinates in 7 to 10 days in soil that is around 70 deg. F. You can start basil indoors to have it ready in about 6 weeks for planting outdoors. Be sure to harden it off before planting in the garden or a large outdoor container.

I hear from people that they'd rather buy a plant than start basil from seed. Unless you are lucky enough to have a herb nursery near you, your choice of basil types will be limited if you only purchase plants. If you are adventurous enough to try your hand at seeding basil, your choices of varieties open up considerably. There are so many types of basil, it's difficult to choose just a few. They all have different flavors and somewhat different growth habits.

Lemon Basil Lemon Basil Image courtesy of Johnny's Selected Seeds

If you like to cook and use basil, you owe it to yourself to try some of the ones beyond the standard Italian or Genovese type. Lemon and lime basils are fruity and light. They can be used with chicken or fish, in fruit salad dressings and in a herb tea blend. Cinnamon basil is sweetly scented and flavorful for adding to salsa, soup or even to make a basil jelly.


Lime Basil Lime Basil Image courtesy of Johnny's Selected Seeds

Other flavors of basil you can find in seed are Thai, Anise, Spicy Globe and Holy Basil or 'Tulsi', from India. Spicy Globe is a compact variety that grows in a globe shape as its name suggests. The flavor is spicy with overtones of clove. The leaves stay small. Spicy Globe Basil makes an attractive container plant. Thai basil comes in several different types. A popular one is a cultivar called 'Siam Queen', with thick flower clusters unlike the tall flower stalks of other basil. Thai Basil is used in Southeast Asian cuisine and any other food you'd like to spice up with the exotic flavor. It's an excellent addition to hot or iced tea.

Then there are the purple leaved basils: Red Rubin, Osmin Purple, Purple Ruffles and Amethyst.
Amethyst Basil Amethyst Basil Image courtesy of Johnny's Selected Seeds
These add great interest in the garden, in flower arrangements and as a garnish. You can also use it like any sweet basil, but remember, it'll turn your dish a darker color.

Holy Basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum or 'Tulsi' is a basil well known in India.
Holy Red and Green Basil Holy Basil Image courtesy of Johnny's Selected Seeds
It has a bit stronger flavor than other basil, in my estimation. It also has many health and healing benefits and is often administered in a tea. For more information on Holy Basil, here are a couple of web sites:
Organic India
hinduism.about.com

There's a variety of Holy Basil called 'Red and Green' which makes a terrific decorative annual. The leaves are as described, red and green. The plant grows fairly tall, up to about 20 inches and then flowers.
Holy Red and Green Basil Holy Red and Green Basil Image courtesy of Johnny's Selected Seeds

Even in the South, it's not too late to start basil seeds either indoors, in a sheltered spot outdoors in containers or direct seed into the garden. You can plant basil all summer if you like. Just remember to keep basil well watered and pinch or harvest it often to keep the plant bushy and to keep it from flowering. If you live in the northern or northeastern US, go ahead and start your basil seeds now indoors and you'll have nice, large plants to put out once the weather warms up.

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Basil Recipes

Easy Pesto
  • 2 cups clean basil leaves (you can use all one variety or mixed varieties, according to your taste)
  • 1/4 - 1/2 cup nuts. Pinenuts are traditional, but I use pecans because they grow here on our farm.
  • 1/2 cup grated hard cheese such as Parmesan or Romano, or a blend.
  • 5-8 cloves of garlic, according to your taste
  • Approximately 1/2 cup olive or other vegetable oil. This amount can vary depending on how much cheese and nuts you put in.


  • Food Processor:
    Add all ingredients and process until you have a smooth, well-mixed pesto. The consistency should be similar to that of mayonnaise.

    Blender
    This is a little more work than using a food processor, but makes an equally delicious pesto.
    Place about a quarter of the basil leaves in the jar adding 1/2 cup oil, the nuts and cheese. Blend (I use the puree setting or high setting.)
    You'll need a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to push the mixture down onto the blades fairly often. ---Don't do what I did one time.... and stick a wooden spoon in the jar before the blades stopped turning. The spoon was jerked from my hand, bounced out of the jar, sprayed oil and basil everywhere and broke the spoon inside the jar. I threw the whole mess away and had to start over so I didn't have splinters in the pesto.

    In other words.... wait until the blades have stopped turning before sticking the spoon in!!!



    After you have that first mix pretty well blended and the nuts are well ground, just keep adding the basil leaves about a handful at time until all the leaves are used up. If the mix is too thick, add a little oil to thin it down.
    It doesn't have to be perfectly smooth. In fact, I like the pesto a little coarse so I can see the leaves, but the nuts should be well ground.

    To preserve the pesto, I fill ice cube trays with the mixture and freeze it over night. The next day I remove the pesto cubes and store them in a plastic bag or tub in the freezer. One cube is one serving.


    Pesto can be made with other leafy green herbs. Parsley mixed with basil is tasty. Cilantro and parsley is very good, too, especially with chicken enchiladas or even Indian food like curry.


    Low Fat, Full Flavor Purple Basil Pesto
    Makes about 1-1/2 cups

  • 1/2 cup (about 2-1/2 ounces) roasted & salted whole almonds
  • about 4 cups fresh purple basil leaves
  • 3 to 6 large cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano (or other hard) cheese
  • 10 ounces fresh tomatoes (about 3 smallish) any kind, quartered
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil


  • Follow directions for Pesto (above).

    purple basil pesto Recipe and picture courtesy of Farmgirl Fare.

    Purple basil isn't as pretty as the green and does make a rather oddly colored pesto (as you can see in the photo above). Mixing a few green leaves into the pesto does help brighten it up a bit.


    Herbal vinegar

    To make herbal vinegar is very simple. Take a clean jar.....I like to use either a quart or pint canning jar because the mouth is wide enough to easily add the herbs. Fill the jar with the herbs of your choice.

    If you're using basil, try lemon and/or lime for use in marinades for chicken or fish. Italian Basil vinegar makes a savory vinaigrette. The purple leaf basils will turn your vinegar the color of cranberry juice. For a lighter color, mix just a little bit of purple leaves in with whatever green basil leaves you're using. Don't forget, you can use the basil flowers as well in the vinegar.

    For a pint jar, about 2 cups of fresh herbs is enough. For a quart jar, 3 - 4 cups will work.

    Then fill the jar with the vinegar of your choice. Wine or champagne vinegar is great, although costly when making a lot of vinegars. Next best is rice vinegar. You can usually find it in large containers (such as 1 gallon) at an Asian grocery. The cost is quite a bit lower than purchasing the vinegar in small quantities. As a last resort, you may use regular white vinegar.......the kind used for canning. It'll give your vinegar a sharper flavor. But, it's better than no herbal vinegar at all!!!

    Harvest your herbs in the late morning after the early dew has dried, but before the heat of the day really sets in. The volatile oils are at their peak at this time. If you live where it's dusty and the herbs need to be washed, swish them in a container of water briefly, then let them dry before making the herb vinegar. If it's practical, wash the plants off the day before you plan to harvest them. Then, you don't have to wash them the day you are making the vinegar.

    Let the infusion steep for about 2 weeks. Then, pour off the vinegar, straining particles out if necessary. Now you can fill decorative bottles or any bottle of your choice with the flavored vinegar, adding a sprig or two of fresh herbs for looks.

    Flavored vinegar should be stored in a dark place or at least out of direct sunlight. Experiment with some of the combinations below, or make up your own. Think of flavors that sound like they'd taste good together. Most of all, do it and have fun.

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    QUOTE FOR THE MONTH

    Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong. -Dandamis, sage (4c BCE)

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    Until Next Time,
    Good Growing to You,
    Cindy Meredith, proprietor
    The Herb Cottage
    442 CR 233
    Hallettsville, TX 77964
    phone & fax: 979-562-2153
    http://theherbcottage.com/