Basil can be moved from the garden right into the kitchen

March 10, 2005

DIANE ALEXANDER

Victoria County Master Gardener

Let thy kitchen be thy apothecary and let foods be thy medicine. - Hippocrates

I came across this quote while preparing for this article and thought it so applicable to my view of the importance of having interests and diversions that supplement our lives. Although Hippocrates might well have meant this in a literal sense, I prefer a broader interpretation.

Most all of us have hobbies and leisure activities that serve as our "medicine" to relieve everyday stresses and pressures - work, family, health and financial concerns. For some, these might be sports. For others, arts and crafts. And for still others, music. The list is endless. Gardening and cooking are my diversions, two pursuits that complement each other well.

The Herb Society of America's New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses by Deni Bown states: "Botanists describe an herb as a small, seed-bearing plant with fleshy, rather woody parts (from which we get the term "herbaceous"). ... In addition to herbaceous perennials, herbs include trees, shrubs, annuals, vines, and more primitive plants, such as ferns, mosses, algae, lichens, and fungi. They (herbs) are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticidal properties, and coloring materials (dyes)."

Herbs have numerous uses. For centuries, in all cultures, they have been used for medicinal purposes. Landscape designers often use a variety of herbs as ornamental plants. Dried herbs are used in craft projects, and aromatic herbs may be utilized in bouquets, potpourri, oils and perfumes. As an amateur cook, I focus on the culinary uses of herbs.

Over the years, I have experimented with growing a variety of culinary herbs; however, I always return to what I consider my basics when it comes to cooking with herbs - rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, chives and basil. These are always in my small garden and I use them almost daily in my cooking. Of these, the one that I use most often and is my favorite is basil.

Basil is a terrific annual herb belonging to the mint family. It is characterized by square, hairy branching stems, opposite leaves and flower spikes. The leaf texture and shape and the flower color vary according to species. There are more than 40 varieties of basil. According to John Fossati, owner of Four Seasons Garden Center, some favorites in this area include purple ruffles and cinnamon leaf basils, both used not only in cooking, but also as ornamental and companion plants because of their unique coloring. He also mentioned that pixie basil is a great variety to use in small areas or containers. As the name implies, it is a dwarf variety growing in mounds only 10-12 inches in height.

Laurie Garretson, owner of Earthworks, shared that although she has carried more than 20 varieties, some favorites include lime and Thai basils. She also said that this past season she carried green pepper basil and noticed that it has wintered well, something that is unusual for most basils. John and Laurie both agree that the preferred type among herb gardeners is sweet basil, the most well-known and widely available variety.

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) has a wonderful aroma and rich, peppery flavor hinting of mint and cloves. Its distinctive scent and taste is due to the essential oils contained in its leaves. Just brushing up against a plant or rubbing it will release its fragrance. Although we most often associate basil with Italian cooking, it probably had its origins in India, Pakistan and Thailand.

In our climate, basil is easily grown outdoors either from seed sown directly into the garden or as transplants started in small pots. I prefer to purchase seedlings from local nurseries to transplant into prepared beds. Transplants should not be set out until the danger of frost is past and should be spaced at least 12 inches apart.

Ideally, basil should be planted in a sunny location and in rich, well-drained soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. A raised bed works well and it is best to incorporate some compost into the soil before planting. Regular watering is a must, but over-watering can encourage fungal disease. After the plants are established and growing well, they should be fertilized sparingly. Rather, faithful pruning will encourage new growth and health. Pinching off flower buds will also encourage the plant to produce more leaves, but toward the end of the season, plants should be allowed to flower if only for the enjoyment of their beauty.

It is best to harvest basil in mid to late morning after the dew has dried but before the heat of the afternoon sets in. This is when the essential oils are the strongest. Although immediate use is preferred, the cuttings may be wrapped in a paper towel and put into the refrigerator for short-term storage of not more than a few hours. For longer-term storage, stems may be placed in water for no more than a few days. I prefer not to wash the basil until just before use, and a salad spinner is an ideal tool for drying leaves after cleaning. Because it bruises easily, it should not be torn or chopped until it will be added to a recipe.

Throughout the growing season, I harvest my basil for a number of culinary uses, and as with any herb, fresh is best. However, there are easy techniques to preserve it for use after the season is over. Basil can be dried, crumbled and stored in an air-tight container. This is not a great choice, though, as most of the flavor is lost. My favorite storage method is to make basil "ice cubes." Using a food processor, I coarsely chop the leaves and then add just enough olive oil to moisten, pulsing a few times to mix. I then spoon the mixture into ice cube trays, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and store in the freezer. During the off-season, I can use these basil cubes to season a variety of dishes, including soups, stews, pasta and rice.

As a versatile culinary herb, basil complements a variety of meats and vegetables. It is ideal with veal, chicken and fish, adds robust flavor to squash, eggplant, tomato and mushroom dishes, and blends well with garlic, thyme and oregano, as well as with citrus fruits, especially lemon. I encourage readers to scour cookbooks or clip magazine recipes that highlight basil as a key ingredient, not overlooking the fun in experimenting with it as well. Basil is great in stir-fry recipes or mixed with butter on hot vegetables. Whether combined with homegrown tomatoes and other ingredients for a toasted bread topping (bruschetta), or used in pesto served with pasta, or as a pizza sauce topped with grilled chicken and provolone cheese, basil adds just enough zest for flavor.

The ease of growing basil and the versatility of its use make it a standard in any garden. And whether one is a gardener, a cook, or both, maintaining an herb garden is a wonderful way to experiment and learn. Gardening and cooking are my pursuits that aid in lessening the strains of everyday living, two activities that harmonize each other so well.