Sweet Basil: Choosing, Growing, Storing and Recipes
“Write more about growing basil” has been on the do list for some time – years, actually, ever since the basil harvest tips post that appeared back in 2006. (Nothing hasty, that’s my motto.)
But filling out this year’s seed orders has finally given me the requisite nudge. In catalogue after catalogue, Occimum basilicum and its close relatives are available in a far wider assortment than any other culinary herb (at least among annuals; thyme is another matter). This year we’ll be planting eight varieties and that’s just a small sampling.
CHOOSING WHICH BASIL(S) TO PLANT
A list of my own picks for this year is at the end of the post, after the recipe suggestions.
When it comes to variety selection, it might seem as though space limitations would come first: the more basil-friendly planting room you have, the more kinds you can try. Or maybe it’s intended use: the best basils for pesto are not the best for wrapping around a filling of finely chopped shrimp, peanuts and vegetables, for instance, and neither of these is the best choice for filling in flower bouquets.
Unfortunately, the first thing to consider is actually: have I had trouble with basil before, and if so, was that trouble the gradual decline and death caused by Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. Basilicum, aka basil fusarium wilt, a particularly nasty fungus pretty much specific, as its name suggests, to basil?
Basil wilt usually arrives on contaminated seed, but spores can travel through the air and on distant basil relatives, like rosemary and thyme, which can carry the disease without showing any symptoms. (Sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, is the only member of the tribe that succumbs when infected.)
In any event, once you’ve had this problem you have it bigtime. It’s now in the soil, easily spread from one spot to another, ready to infect any new basil you plant. And it’s going to stay there for years – three to ten, depending on which expert you consult.
Basil fusarium wilt started showing up in the US in the early 90’s, so at this point Steps Have Been Taken. Many seeds are checked for fusarium before being sold and breeders have created resistant strains, including ‘Nufar’, ‘Aroma’ and ‘Aton’. Those are the ones to choose if there’s any chance that your soil is contaminated.
So far I’ve escaped the scourge, and I’m such a slut for recherché basils I plant whatever looks tempting. But if I were more sensible I’d try to avoid future heartache by sticking to seeds the catalog promises have been tested for fusarium and found clean, even though the test isn’t an ironclad guarantee.
A good way to think about planting basil is to remember it’s like lettuce: tastiest when fresh and young. It makes sense to grow one big crop to harvest for pesto to freeze. But other than that the ideal is to plant just a little at a time, at intervals of about a month, so new plants are always coming along. This is easier said than done, but since I’m saying at the moment you may now consider it said.
Starting plants indoors:
- Start about 6 weeks before you expect warm weather … not just frost-free, warm. Sprinkle seeds very sparingly over the surface of a shallow planting container filled with dampened seed-starting mix. Press them in so they’re barely covered, the soil layer on top should be no more than 1/8 inch thick.
- Put the container in a plastic bag and put it somewhere warm. The top of the fridge is great if you don’t have “out of sight, out of mind” issues (no names, please). Check every day. As soon as you see sprouts, uncover the container and move it to a very brightly lit, warm place. Thin – by cutting at the soil line, not pulling – so seedlings are about ¾ inch apart.
- Water as needed from the bottom with room temperature water, trying to keep soil evenly moist but not wet. When seedlings have their first set of true leaves, transplant into cell packs or little pots that will give each plant about 1.5 square inches of space.
- Let them make another set of leaves, then pinch out the growing tip right above the top leaf pair. This will force the plant to branch and help prevent the light-hungry seedlings from getting too leggy. Add just a drop of fish emulsion the next time you water.
- Before long, the plants will be filling the cells and it should be time to harden them off and plant them out. But if the weather doesn’t cooperate, don’t let the babies get root bound. It’s better to move the plants to larger pots than to put them in cold ground.
Planting seedlings, purchased or home grown, in the ground or in containers:
Choose a spot that gets sun for at least 8 hours a day. Soil should be fertile and well drained. Weed thoroughly before planting, then set the plants 8 to 12 inches apart, depending on packet instructions. Mulch with a thin layer of chopped straw or grass clippings to keep down weeds and prevent soil splash-ups. Be sure mulch doesn’t touch the stems.
Planting seeds outdoors:
Wait until the weather is settled and the soil is warm. Then all the indoor instructions apply – cover thinly, keep the soil from drying out, thin promptly and pinch back ditto.
CARING FOR BASIL PLANTS
- Water just enough to keep the soil evenly moist; basil roots are quick to rot if they stay wet.
- Fertilize sparingly once at planting out and once after a month or so, being as restrained with the food as you are with the water. Generous fertilizing will increase leaf mass considerably, but it will also diminish flavor and weaken the plants.
- Keep harvesting! Every few days, cut or pinch back all branches so they have no more than four pairs of leaves. Repeat. The goal is to force them to stay immature; once a branch has six or more pairs of leaves, it’ll start sending up flower buds.
- As flowers develop, flavor will coarsen, leaves will toughen and it will be time to turn to the new plants you started from seed right in the ground, about three weeks after you set this batch out.
You will be relieved to know that harvesting and storage were covered in the earlier post. My recipe for pistachio pesto is also there, should you be needing one.
Meanwhile, it’s winter.
6 THINGS TO DO WITH FROZEN PESTO OTHER THAN PUTTING IT IN MINESTRONE OR ON PASTA, BAKED POTATOES OR ROASTED SQUASH
1. Mix with Hellman’s mayonnaise to make dip for raw vegetables: carrots, fennel, celery, cauliflower… You can use homemade mayo, of course, if you happen to have some around, but it’s not enough of an improvement to be worth making on purpose.
2. Use instead of mayo as a sandwich spread: turkey, ham, tuna fish salad, sliced hard boiled egg… if it’s tasty between two pieces of bread, it’s probably tastier if the bread is moistened (not slathered) with pesto.
3. Thin with olive oil to the texture of milk. Marinate small cubes of feta in the liquid. Serve w/baguette or other oil mop (not crackers). Leftover oil and cheese crumbs get sharpened with vinegar and put on the big green salad.
4. Pound chicken breasts thin. Spread with pesto and roll tightly as for jellyroll. Secure rolls with toothpicks and fry in butter or steam in a very shallow layer of vermouth.
5. Make slits in a pork roast at roughly 1.5 inch intervals, then widen the slits with a wooden spoon handle to make tunnels. Stuff tunnels with pesto*. Paint the roast surface with beaten egg and press on a layer of breadcrumbs that have been tossed with a bit of olive oil. Roast. Deglaze pan juices with Madiera.
6.Make cream of potato soup. Stir in enough pesto so that instead of potato soup with pesto you have basil and garlic soup on a potato base. Toast a handful of whatever nuts you used in the pesto, chop and sprinkle on top right before serving. Pass a bowl of whipped cream mixed half and half with sour cream.
* For this use, the pesto must be very thick. If yours is on the thin side, bulk it up with grated Parmesan and/or ground pine nuts or pistachios.
Leslie’s This Year Basil Seed List (as of right now; I’ll probably fall for another couple before I’m done):
Genovese – for pesto and tomato salads
Thai – for Asian basil needs
Bolloso Napoletano – giant leaves, for wraps.
Mrs. Burn’s Lemon (O. americanum) – genuinely lemony, great with summer squash
Lime (O. americanum) – who’d a thunk, but it really does have a strong lime fragrance and is delicious with peaches and mangoes and probably in gin and tonic although I haven’t tried that (yet).
Eritrean (O. gratissimum) – basil and yet not basil, very strong and spicy with almost the aroma of black pepper. It’s sold as the one to use in African recipes; I’ve been enjoying it in lentil salads and tomato based fish stews. Difficult to get going, I’m sorry to say, though once it takes hold it grows pretty well.
Mexican Cinnamon Spice – I always think I’ll use it for something and then there are so many others I don’t and it goes to flower, but as the flowers are a pretty purple , the cinnamon smell is faint but pleasant and the plant itself is robust, why not?
Blue Spice – new (to me) this year. Supposedly very fragrant, which is easy to believe, with overtones of vanilla, which is not easy to believe but would be very interesting if true.
A FEW SOURCES
Final Note: I’m not a medicinal herbs type, but can’t leave the subject of basil without at least mentioning that it’s considered to be quite powerful in the healing department. For more on this aspect and for the special basils in question, one place to start is Horizon Herbs, a company brought to my attention by the invaluable Margaret Roach, over at A Way to Garden. (More about her coming right up).