Sunday, August 16, 2020

Basil basics-harvesting, preserving, growing basil

Basil in the foreground
Sunday August 16, 2020

Basil is a native of Africa and other tropical areas of Asia where it has been cultivated for over 5,000 years.  It is a culinary herb that sends cooks into poetic rapture.  It is probably the favorite of the “sweet” herbs and well known from its use in Mediterranean cuisine.  It has a spicy bite when eaten fresh.

Basil contains a chemical that might help inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis called BCP, (E)-beta-caryphliene.  Basil is also great for taking the itch and swelling out of a mosquito bite.  Simply crush a leaf and run onto the bite.  It goes to work immediately while releasing its wonderful aroma at the same time.  For more information on vitamin and mineral content,   basil nutritional info

Basil and cilantro are the only annual herbs I grow.  All the rest of the herbs in the garden are perennials, meaning you plant them once and they come back every year.  I even had some basil "volunteers" return from last year's Cardinal basil.  I just dug them up from where they sprang up and replanted where I wanted them.

Herbs are the easiest to grow and what I started with before growing veggies.  Start a kitchen herb garden!

Harvesting Basil
For basil harvest, the key is to harvest before the basil gets woody.  The best strategy to accomplish this is to not let the plant go to flower.  Just pinch off the flowers and use the fresh basil in a dish or salad.  

You get multiple harvests from each plant in a season.  I get three harvests in our Zone 6/7 garden.  Cut each stem back to the last 4 leaves. Give each plant a good dose of fish emulsion after harvesting to support quick leaf regrowth.  Bees love basil flowers so I plant Holy Basil and Cardinal Basil just to let them flower and keep the bees happy.

Basil plant after harvested
Basil before harvesting
Preserving Basil
You can freeze, dry, make basil into pesto, basil butter, basil vinegar, or basil oil.  

For freezing, you can freeze chopped leaves into ice cubes to be able to pop into sauces. You can also blanch and freeze.  If you don’t blanch, the frozen herb does not keep its color or flavor.  Blanching is simply throwing the herb leaves in a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds and then quickly plunge them into a bowl or sink of ice water.  Dry the leaves then put the leaves on a cookie sheet, place in the freezer and when frozen, remove and put in quart freezer bags.  Now you can have fresh basil anytime you need it!

Harvested basil stems
For drying, I place the cut stems into a paper bag that I put in a dry, warm place.  You can also tie in bunches and hang upside down to dry.  Be sure to leave lots of open space between stems to discourage any mold.  When completely dry, I remove the leaves and place in canning jars.

I will take all of my dried herbs for the season and make it into my own blend of "Herbes de Provence" that I use on and in everything!  Make your own "Herbes de Provence"

My favorite way to preserve basil is to make pesto.  Pesto is a mixture of fresh basil, traditionally pine nuts (but I use any kind of nut I have on hand-walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, cashews), parmesan cheese, a few cloves of garlic, and olive oil.  You can add spinach or parsley.  Just throw them all together in a food processor and ta-da pesto!

I use about 8 cups of packed leaves (be sure to not include any tough stems), 1/2 cup nuts, 1 cup of olive oil, 1 and 3/4 cup of Parmesan, 8 cloves of fresh garlic and a teas of salt.  After processing, I put half in a quart freezer bag, lay flat in the freezer until ready to use.  Just thaw and toss with your favorite pasta or add to pizza, bruschetta, sandwiches or sauce for a quick and tasty meal.  

Pesto ready to freeze
For basil butter, chop the basil and mix 1 Tbl, or to taste, into softened butter.

For basil vinegar, choose a white vinegar so that the taste of the basil shines through.  Place fresh basil leaves into an empty bottle and cover with vinegar.  Place in cool, dark area for a month.  Shake daily.  Strain out leaves and use!  You can accelerate the infusion process by covering the leaves with boiling vinegar.  Your creation will be ready in a week.

For basil flavored oil, chop 1 cup of leaves.  Heat 1 cup of oil on low, add herbs, stirring for 3-4 minutes.  Strain out leaves and keep oil refrigerated.  

Lots of options!

Basil turns black when temps get close to freezing.  Be sure to harvest all leaves when it looks like you are getting a frost.  You can also take the the tips and place in water to grow roots and pot indoors for winter harvests.  You can also dig up the plant and repot to bring indoors.  Be sure to put in a sunny window.  Basil won’t thrive indoors, but you will get enough to use as seasoning in your favorite dishes and return to the garden in the spring.

Growing Basil
Basil is easy to grow.  It loves warmth and melts when temps get even close to freezing.  The only watch out is too much water.  You’ll get the best flavor when you are stingy with water.

They don’t require much in the way of fertilizer.  Just fertilize at planting and once/month.  A good organic choice is blood meal.  Nitrogen encourages green growth which is what you are after when it comes to basil.

Basil grows well in pots indoors or out. If growing indoors, be sure to put in a sunny window.

It smells amazing when you brush up against it.  You can place next to a garden path to enjoy its fragrance every time you pass by.  To deter deer, plant fragrant herbs like basil around the perimeter of your garden.  Deer navigate with their sense of smell and avoid areas of strong smells.

When flowers appear, pinch them off.  This will encourage bushy growth and keep your basil from getting woody.  The flowers are edible and great adds to sauces or as a zing to salads.  The bees just love the small flowers.  Harvest any time you need.  Be sure to add to the dish at the very end of cooking to keep the strongest flavor.
Cardinal basil flowers
Sweet basil is used in Mediterranean cooking.  Popular types are Genovese (probably the most famous for Italian cooking), and Mammoth.  Purple Ruffles is more decorative than culinary, but adds fun color as an infusion to vinegar.  Thai, lemon and holy basil are used in Asian cooking.   Holy basil is a prolific self seeder so you'll get lots of new ones in next year's garden without having to plant them yourself.  Cardinal basil has the most beautiful flowers and one I have to have in my garden every season.

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