Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Herb Series - Basil Basics


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It’s getting closer to spring, and it will soon be time to start planning and planting our flower, vegetable and herb gardens. I’m especially looking forward to growing my annual crop of basil in the half barrel that I’ve used for many years. Besides being such a tasty and versatile plant, those green basil plants are just so pretty!

I know I did a post about basil last year (June 27 to be exact), but basil is the first of the new series about herbs. Maybe you’ll find something here that you didn’t already know!

Basil is of the genus “Ocimum”, and the botanical name is “Ocimum basilicum”. It is native to India, having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. Basil is typically grown between June and September, and is considered an annual, but may be perennial in tropical locations. The basil plant can grow 1 to 3 feet tall and 6 to 12 inches across. It grows best in light, well-drained soil in a sunny area. Basil is a low-maintenance plant, but can be susceptible to aphids, bacterial and fungal leaf stem and root diseases.

Sweet basil is the most common, but there are more than 160 basil cultivars, with more coming along all the time. This plant is easy to grow, both from seeds and from cuttings. Cuttings can be suspended in water and should root in around 2 weeks, then transplanted. If the plant is wilted it will bounce back with a good watering. Yellow leaves indicate stress, either over-watering or too much or too little fertilizer.

Removing flower heads will keep the plant producing leaves. You can let some heads produce seeds to save for next year. Be sure to harvest the plants before frost. See below for tips on preserving the leaves.

Medicinal/Health Properties:

Basil oil may have antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. It is also potentially an anticancer treatment. In India it is used to treat stress, asthma and diabetes. It is toxic to mosquitoes, but not to rats. It isn’t known if it could be harmful to humans.

Culinary:

Fresh basil should always be added to cooked foods at the end of the cooking process in order to preserve its flavor. It adds great flavor to soups, meats, salads and vegetables. Basil vinegar is a flavorful addition to salad dressings and would be tasty to drizzle over cooked vegetables.

BASIL VINEGAR

2 cups white vinegar
1 cup torn basil leaves
basil sprig

Place torn basil leaves in sterilized quart jar. Bring vinegar to a simmer (do not boil) and add to jar. Cover and let stand until room temperature. Strain vinegar into sterilized jar or bottle and discard torn basil. Add basil sprig. Cover and store in cool, dark place for up to 1 year. Makes 2 cups.

 You could also do the same thing with rosemary, tarragon or oregano.

Several years ago people were making herb-infused oils for cooking. It turned out that those home-prepared oils didn’t hold up well, becoming rancid very quickly. The oils aren’t mentioned much anymore, but the vinegars should do well.

Preserving:

There are several ways you can preserve your basil leaves. One is to cut stems and place them in a glass with about 2 inches of water; cover loosely with a plastic bag and place in the refrigerator. Another is to wrap the stems in damp paper towels and place in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. You may also dry the leaves. They freeze well and make great pesto. I still have a few cubes of pesto left in the freezer from last year, and often throw one into my pasta sauce.

The bottom line is that basil is inexpensive, easy to grow and a flavorful addition to your dinner table. So do as I do every year – pick up a packet of seeds and sow them after the ground is warm and the danger of frost is over. You’ll be glad you did!
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Your comments and suggestions are always welcome. Thanks for reading!

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