Abundant Herb of the Moment: Basil

Basil Leaves
Basil Herb Leaves

In Texas, the basil is rockin’. I’ve nurtured three plants this spring, and they are happy indeed, but I know as the summer heats up, their tender leaves will suffer. So I’m doing my best to enjoy as much of their bounty as I can now and preserve like a pioneer woman for colder times.

If you love basil, I hope you’ll enjoy my quick tips for growing, using, and preserving this wonderfully spicy-yet-sweet herb.

Growing And Harvesting

My not-so-green thumb manages to grow basil with high success rates — and if I can do it, most anyone can. After about a decade of basil growing experience (with some years yielding better results than others), I’ve learned it’s important to:

  • Put basil in its proper place. Plant basil transplants in a warm, sunny, sheltered spot in well-drained soil. Keep them well watered and beware of heat stress. You’ll know when it’s thirsty or sunburned by its leaves’ body language: A happy basil plant’s leaves are perky. Sad leaves droop toward the soil.
  • Harvest regularly. Don’t fear clipping your basil! Clipping a stem above a set of leaves drives two new stems to grow from that spot. Doing so early (before the plant gets too tall) encourages a fuller plant as opposed to a leggy one. My rule of thumb is to clip stems back to about five to seven inches from the ground once they’ve become taller than ten to twelve inches. For maximum flavor, harvest in the morning after watering heavily the night before.
  • Watch for insects. Not a year passes without aphids and other assorted culprits plaguing my precious greens. To combat pests, I spray the plants with a homemade mix of water with small amounts of soap and Frank’s Hot Sauce. That seems to do the trick most of the time. You can also buy organic insecticides from your local hardware store.
  • Pluck basil flowers as soon as they appear (if desired). Once basil starts to flower, it uses all its energy nurturing the buds instead of those delicious leaves. Basil flowers look good and attract bees, but if you let them grow, your plant will eventually run out of steam and wither away. I find myself balancing my harvest to-date with my admiration of basil’s natural lifecycle. If I want more leaves, I nip the flowers. If I’m satiated with my summer’s basil bounty and I’ve preserved as much as I need, I’ll let them die a natural (and beautiful) death.

What To Do With Basil Now

Oh, the endless possibilities! You can use a large harvest of basil leaves to make pesto. Chifonnade a smaller bunch to top bruschetta, pizza, or pasta. Chop some up to throw in spaghetti sauce. Toss leaves in a salad or introduce them to some vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper as part of a homemade dressing. Add to your favorite chicken, pork, or fish marinades for a new flavor punch.

One of my favorite — and most simple — ways to enjoy a couple of freshly plucked basil leaves is to skewer them with a toothpick accompanied by a cherry or grape tomato and a nibble of fresh mozzarella. Or to make a caprese salad uniting sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, salt, pepper, and olive oil. Truly summer on a plate.

How To Preserve It For Later

Basil freezes well for future use in sauces and marinades. I’ve come across two very successful freezing methods:

  1. Chop clean basil leaves in a food processor with enough olive oil to make the concoction relatively smooth. Fill ice cube trays or small muffin tins with the pureed basil mixture. Freeze overnight and then pop the frozen nuggets into a freezer-safe bag.
  2. Pick and wash individual basil leaves. Lay them on a sheet pan in a single layer, and toss the pan into the freezer overnight. In the morning, throw the individually-frozen leaves into a freezer-safe bag.

Either technique allows you to forage in your freezer in the deepest winter months to boost the flavor of sauces, stews, and soups with a bit of summer basil brightness.

Got other techniques for using and preserving your basil harvest? Share, please?

Image credit: pizzodisevo via flickr/CC license

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