In the Garden:
Upper South
July, 2010
Regional Report

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Take time to smell the basil!

Basil - The King of Summer

Oh, certainly, summer is luxuriant with a whole host of herbs flourishing in the heat, but it is only basil that would make us feel bereft were it not available. Who can imagine thick, juicy slices of tomato without basil? Or a quick summer lunch of pasta without pesto? That mingling of aromas of clove, anise, cinnamon, camphor, and citrus is unlike any other. Snuggle your nose in a big bunch of basil, and, well, life just seems good.

Not surprisingly, the genus name of basil, Ocimum, comes from the Greek word okimon, or "smell." Depending upon which botanist you ask, there are some 30 to 150 species and at least as many cultivars. The species name of the most common culinary type is O. basilicum, a derivation of the Greek word for king. Basils are generally native to tropical and semitropical regions, with most being annual plants. As might be expected, they thrive in warm weather, growing best in full sun with plenty of moisture.

Harvest Your Basil Over and Over
Hopefully, you have an abundance of basil growing in your garden that you're regularly harvesting and trimming it back. Never be afraid to cut your basil back much more than seems appropriate. Basil plants very much want to set seed, and it is your job to prevent that by harvesting over and over. In fact, a single plant of a variety like 'Genoa' or 'Genovese' can produce as much as one-and-a-half pounds of leaves during the summer. On average, you should get about 7 cups of leaves per plant. Ideally, you'll have at least four to six basil plants so that you can stagger your harvest, as a plant that is cut back hard needs about three weeks to produce an appreciable amount again.

Using Basil
Basil is at its best when used just after being picked and added either just at the end of cooking or used without any cooking at all, but experiment with it in lots of other ways. Basil partners well with a variety of vegetables and can be added to sandwiches, salads, egg dishes, fish, soups and breads. If you want to keep fresh basil on hand after picking or buying, simply place it in a jar of water on the kitchen counter, adding fresh water daily. Kept this way, it often roots and continues growing.

Besides mincing and sprinkling on freshly sliced tomatoes, the most popular way to use basil is in pesto. For a classic pesto, combine 4 cups packed basil leaves, 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, three-quarter cup lightly toasted pine nuts, 2 roughly chopped garlic cloves, and one-half teaspoon salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mixture is finely chopped. With the motor running, pour three-quarter cup of extra-virgin olive oil into the feed tube. This is best used immediately, but it can be refrigerated or frozen, with a thin layer of olive oil poured over the top to maintain the bright green color.

Beyond the classic pesto, you can substitute other nuts, especially almonds or walnuts, or substitute a portion of the basil with parsley or cilantro. Besides using pesto to dress pasta, try mixing it with bread crumbs to make a crust for chicken or fish; use as a sauce for grilled chicken or fish; toss it with bread cubes before baking for flavored croutons; stir into rice or mashed potatoes; add to burger, meat loaf, or meatball mixtures; add to scrambled eggs; thin with a little water and vinegar for a salad dressing; mix with cream cheese, yogurt, or sour cream for a sandwich spread or dip; mix into bread dough or muffin batter; use in place of mayonnaise for potato salad, or stir into vegetable or tomato soup.

Sadly, basil loses a lot of flavor when dried. Many cooks prefer to preserve it as frozen pesto. Another option is to whirl basil and water in a blender or food processor, then pour the mixture into ice cube trays. Pop the cubes out and store in a container in the freezer. You can also make basil vinegar or basil butter.

However you decide to use basil, savor and revel in it when it is at its best this summer.








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