Herbs and fine cuisine go together like basil on freshly plucked tomatoes. Now vegetable gardeners get pretty excited about freshly plucked tomatoes. Their passionate descriptions of biting into a juicy red orb still warm from the sun, can be enough to make a wine label writer weep with envy. But it gets even better. Sprinkle a few leaves of basil on that same tomato and it’s like having Brian Minter show up on your doorstep. With plants. Begging to be put to work in your garden. For the entire summer. For free.
Chefs use fresh herbs to make a ten dollar meal worth a hundred. Fortunately for the gardener, the same ingredients that slim your wallet in a restaurant, cost mere pennies to grow yourself. Confession time. I grew herbs for years simply because I liked to sniff them. It wasn’t that I was ignorant of the fact that herbs were edible, it was more that they intimidated me. I didn’t have a clue how to prepare them, how much to add or on what. The most daring thing I ever ventured to do was chop up a handful of chives for a baked potato. Whenever a recipe called for a herb, I ignored the fresh stuff and reached for the familiar, faded, bland stuff in expensive small glass jars instead. I know, I know. It pains me just to write about it. Then one fall I brought a pot of basil inside because frost was threatening and I wasn’t finished sniffing it yet. A couple weeks later I realized I was out of pesto. A cautious peek inside a cookbook revealed that all I needed to make my own was garlic cloves, parmesan, pine nuts and olive oil. I had all those things. But I also needed fresh basil. I slowly looked over at my basil perched innocently on the window ledge. Then I summoned my courage, swallowed hard, and marched over to my sniffer plant.
My homemade pesto wowed the family, and I fell into fits of remorse for all the years I let fresh basil leaves go to waste. I was astute enough to realize I had been overlooking other fresh herbs as well (see article on dill for another example!). It was a mistake I resolved to amend. To date, it’s the only resolution I have ever managed to keep. I have been crazy for herbs ever since. If you do nothing else, at least grow a basil or two alongside your tomatoes. Not only do they thrive as companion plants, but it will make it handy for grabbing a handful of basil leaves whenever you serve up a sun ripened tomato dish. Believe me, your mouth will trip over its taste buds to thank you. On a busy garden day I relish going to my greenhouse for lunch. It’s fast food without the fat, but all the flavour. There is nothing more indulgent then popping cherry tomatoes into my mouth, followed by a basil leaf chaser.
Basil is an annual, although there are varieties such as African Blue Basil that can be perennial in zone 11+. Forget such notions in the north. Basil is a sun worshipper and will not tolerate cold in the least. It won’t survive a light frost, let alone a seven month winter. I swear, if you were to suck on an icy mint and accidentally breathe on a basil, it would shudder and curl up its leaves. But forgo planting basil? Never! It’s one of my favorite herbs and will therefore always have a warm spot in my greenhouse, as well as my heart. For being so persnickety about the cold, basil is surprisingly easy to germinate. A few seeds sprinkled in a pot and lightly covered with soil will give rise to basil seedlings within the week. It’s almost as if they can’t wait to get up out of the soil and feel the sun on their leaves.
If you sprinkle two or three seeds in a six inch pot on a sunny window sill in late March, you can easily transfer the entire pot into the greenhouse come June. In late August, long before the word “frost” even crosses the meteorologist’s mind, I either do a final harvest of the entire plant or return the pot to its sunny window ledge in my frost-free kitchen for some leisurely fall plucking. In warmer climates, sow basil directly into the ground. Just make sure you choose a sunny location with well-drained and organically rich soil. Ideally, the soil temperature should be 22 Celsius (70 degrees F). Especially once the seedlings have risen. If these little divas find their feet in cold soil, they’re liable to fall over in a dead faint and that could very well be the last you ever see of them.
There is much controversy over when to start pruning basil. Some start when the plant has three sets of true leaves, while others wait until there are as many as eight. For me, it all depends on my tomatoes. If my tomatoes are slow to set my basil might get to the eight leaf stage before I start to harvest, but if my tomatoes are ready before my basil, it will be lucky to make it past two. But remember – pruning is a good thing! It ensures both a bushy basil and a big, bountiful, harvest. You should harvest your basil every 2 to 3 weeks. Pretend you’re an uptight parent from the 70’s and Basil is your son. “Get a haircut” is your mantra. A frequently clipped basil is a hard working basil – healthy and productive. However, if it’s left to grow long and straggly it will blossom young, go seedy before its time and end up bitter.
For the first pruning, cut the plant just above its second set of leaves and then continue to harvest every three to four weeks thereafter. Basil blossoms are as beautiful as they are tasty. Be sure to pick them off before they go to the seed and don’t be shy about tossing them in a cooking pot or salad. If you allow your basil to set seed, it thinks its earthly mission is complete, and will commence with dying. To extend the growing season – and the harvest – you want to pinch those flower buds off as if they were aphids. If you keep your basil from going to seed and harvest diligently, it’s possible to harvest 3 – 5 liters (15 – 20 cups) of basil leaves from a single plant! Traditionally, the best time to harvest herbs is in the early morning after the dew is gone, but before the sun has sapped the leaves of their precious essential oils. However, researchers at University of Michigan recently discovered that harvesting basil in the evening between 6 and 10 p.m. increases its shelf life. Only one thing is certain; when all is said and done, a lot more will be said than done. So the best advice I can give you is harvest your basil whenever you can find the time.
There are several methods for preserving your bountiful basil harvest. Here are three.
This is the best method for long term cupboard storage, but probably the worst for retaining flavour. But rest assured – it will still taste better than that store stuff. The simplest way to dry basil, is to simply bunch it into small bundles and hang to dry. I like to cover the bundles with a brown paper lunch bag to keep off the flies, dust and whatnot during the drying process. Poke a hole through the bottom of the bag for the stems to stick through and then hang. This method also keeps the light from leaching all the green from the leaves. You can also dry basil in a 150 oven but I feel that it loses a lot more of its essential oils that way. If you can afford a high quality dehydrator such as an Excalibur it has settings that are low enough that drying can be a breeze while still retaining all the health in the herbs.
Once the basil is dry – whatever method you use – simply toss the dried leaves into a big wooden bowl and use a pizza cutter to quickly cut the leaves as fine as you like. Leaving the leaves whole and cutting them up as you’re ready to use them will leave even more nutrients and taste intact. Store in a glass jar in a cool dark place for up to a year.
I admit to feeling a twinge of guilt over putting this heat lover into my freezer, but that’s kind of crazy. For small, multiple harvests, place freshly picked basil leaves on a cookie sheet then set the sheet in the freezer. A few hours later remove the cookie sheet and transfer the frozen leaves into plastic bags or a plastic container and return to the freezer. How simple is that? If you don’t mind the extra calories, you can keep frozen basil greener by mixing freshly chopped leaves with a little olive oil before freezing. Blend 500 ml (2 cups) of leaves with125 ml (half a cup) of oil and pour the paste into a container and put in the freezer. For smaller batches you can first freeze a mix of leaves and oil in an ice cube tray and then transfer the cubes into freezer containers – a very handy method for adding to soups and sauces.
Layer basil leaves and sea salt in a glass jar with a plastic lid and keep in fridge. Leaves will keep at least a year using this method and the basil fused salt can be sprinkled on soups, sauces and vegetables.
There are over 50 varieties of basil ranging in colour from purple to green, with scents from clove to lemon to cinnamon. If you have the room–and they don’t take much–I recommend you grow each and every one! However, if your space is limited, you can’t grow wrong with these three:
- Sweet Basil Ocimum basilicum – very prolific with large foliage. Excellent culinary variety.
Magical Michael Ocimum Magical Michael – This All America winner for 2002 has lush green uniform foliage that lends itself well as an ornamental but has great culinary qualities as well.
Purple Ruffles Ocimum basilicum Purple Ruffles tastes as good as it looks. Herb gardeners often pair purple basil with silver foliage such as sage for a striking contrast.