Basils Make Truly a Feast Sublime

From the National Garden Bureau

Whether you say bay-zil, and I say baa-zil, there's one thing everyone will agree on. Juicy, sun-warmed tomato chunks mixed with olive oil, freshly torn basil and garlic spooned over hot pasta is truly a feast sublime. What's pesto without fresh basil?

Besides having extraordinary taste, basil is incredibly easy to grow. Not only does it add grace to the herb garden or tomato planting, but the numerous shapes and sizes make excellent additions to a perennial garden, shrub border or container garden. Tuck basil plants into unused garden corners, display them among vegetables, edge a flower garden or plant them as an aromatic groundcover along a path where they gently release pungent, anise aroma when brushed against. Basil even grows fairly well indo ors on the windowsill or under lights.

Smaller basil cultivars make superb edging for the perennial border or vegetable garden, or handsome foliage contrast in containers of flowers. Plant a large maroon-leafed basil between ruby lettuce and leeks for a splash of rich color. Cinnamon basil and orange-scented geraniums in a sunny container radiate the scent of warm orange-cinnamon rolls. Use basil as a foil for bright annuals or summer-flowering bulbs in pots or baskets.

Seed racks and catalogs are filled with amazing varieties. There are sweet, scented, Italian, Thai and Greek basils, each with a different leaf shape and flavor.

Most edible basils are cultivars of the species Ocimum basilicum. The smooth-leaved types that grow two to three feet tall are the best-known for culinary use. There are also highly perfumed crinkly-leaved and ruffly-leaved varieties, all of which make superb pesto and double as smashing focal points in the landscape.

Opal basil's deep red to purple leaves display a striking color contrast to green, gray and blue-leaved plants in the perennial border. Culinarily, they make beautiful soft pink sorbets and vinegars. Although their flavor is superb, be cautious abo ut using them in delicate-colored foods such as chicken or white cream soups -- their color may lend a dark purple or gray color to food, not very appetizing by most standards.

In contrast to the large types, the tiny-leaved basils produce small, 6" mounds and are unmatched as edging plants. These small globe basils have a delicate flavor that is best used fresh.

For an entirely different taste, try a scented basil such as cinnamon, anise or lemon. Holy basil, a different species than culinary basil, is a sacred herb in the Hindu religion. Like many of the other scented basils, its fuzzy leaves are used for tea .

Thai basils, fairly new to the American market, have deep maroon-tinged leaves on purple stems and whorls of intense purple flowers. Although the concentrated anise flavor may overpower all but the strongest foods, this is one of the most beautiful for use in the landscape.

Basil asks for nothing more in the garden than full sun and well-drained soil. It grows quickly from seed, giving you plenty of basil by seeding after the last frost in late spring. Basil thrives on warm weather and is frost sensitive, so don't get impatient and sow your seeds too early. Wait until the soil is warm.

Harvest basil just as the flower buds begin to form, when the leaves contain the most concentrated oils and provide the best flavor and fragrance. Once the plant begins to expend energy in flower and seed production, it loses some of its potency.

Cut or pinch basil just above a leaf or pair of leaves, removing no more than a quarter of the plant. This leaves plenty of foliage to keep the plant healthy and looking good as a landscape plant.

Simple air drying produces tasty basil for use all winter. Rinse the leaves in cool water and gently shake off extra moisture. When thoroughly dry, tie a handful of stems firmly into a bundle. Place the bundle in a paper bag, gathering the top of the bag around the stems and tying again. Label and hang the bag in a dry place where the temperature doesn't get above 80 degrees (an attic or garage is ideal). After two to four weeks, the herbs should be dry and crumbly.

To oven-dry, place leaves on a cookie sheet and put into a 180 degree oven for three to four hours, leaving the door ajar. In the microwave, heat the herbs on a paper towel or paper plate for one to 30 second intervals for a total of one to three minute s. Turn or mix as needed until dried.

Once basil is dried, store it in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard. Keep the leaves whole if possible to preserve the oils, and crush or grind only when using them.

To retain just-picked flavor, freeze basil in water or olive oil. Put a handful of washed leaves in a food processor or blender with enough water or oil to make a slurry. When processed, pour into ice cube trays, make sure each cube has enough water to cover the chopped leaves, and freeze. When frozen, turn out the cubes and store in a well-labeled freezer container.

Basil vinegar is a staple in many kitchens for salads, sauteing and marinades. Simply fill a jar with washed leaves and pour cold cider vinegar over them (use white vinegar to take advantage of the beautiful pink color of opal basil). Tighten the lid a nd set in a warm pantry or on a sunny windowsill for 3-4 weeks. Then strain the vinegar into decorative bottles and add a sprig or two of fresh basil for decoration.

To grow basil indoors in winter, find a spot that receives a few hours of sun each day or use fluorescent lights. Plant seeds in porous potting soil and keep moist. The basil plants will not get very large or sturdy, but if you clip them regularly and plant seeds every two weeks, you will have fresh herbs to add to soups, pasta or pesto all winter.

© 1998, National Garden Bureau, Inc.
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