Basil Time

No denying – in fact no escaping – it’s basil and tomato season. The combo is everywhere, at every level of splendor. Amazingly, even in August there are restaurants awash in styrofoam agribusiness tomatoes, leathery, soap-flavored basil     and mozzarella the texture of something vulcanized, but in most cases you can count on getting something pretty good,   and often you get something pretty great: a combination of dead ripe, sweet home grown tomato and tender young sun-kissed basil, one of gastronomy’s finest pairings, an all time winner   –

just not all the time, dammit!

Let’s consider giving it a rest, and not only because this marvy duo is less than fun when it shows up for the 10th time in a week. Time apart is also a boon to the tomatoes, which always end up playing second fiddle to their minty/musky   friend.

But that doesn’t mean basil should be neglected, not when it’s so good with snap beans, summer squash, grilled fish , pasta – pesto! (recipe follows)  – and if you are feeling nouvelle, nectarines.

Basil that’s ready to cut back right now. ( 3 or 4  days ago, actually) .See below for details.

* Harvesting. It’s best to gather basil at the end of the day. Flavor is strongest and sweetest then, and evening-cut stems last longer. Just be sure to get out there before the dew falls; wet leaves muck up recipes and rot fast in storage.

* Storing. Basil and the refrigerator are not friends; the cold turns the leaves black in very short order. It does pay to keep the stems in water, and since there’s nothing like having the inspiration right in front of you when you’re cooking, I usually keep a bouquet of  basil (along with other tender herbs such as parsley, dill, summer savory, and cilantro) in a jar of water near the prep area. Just strip all leaves that would be below the water line before you submerge the stems; change the water daily; and keep the jar out of the sun.

* Plant maintenance and multiplication. Basil gets grassy flavored and leathery as soon as it starts forming flowers. It also stops making green growth. So don’t let it bloom.

As soon as you see the slightest indication that flower stems are about to start, cut plants back, at least 2 or 3 branches down and even farther is better. Pruned plants will rebound quickly, sending out tender stems and tender leaves. As a plus, pruned-off stems with several leaf nodes can often be persuaded to send out roots.

Choose stems that do not have flowers. Store in jars of water as described above. Pot ’em up when roots are about ½ inch long and you’ll have plenty of young plants to tide you over the swing season (frosty nights; warm days; pots of basil in the sun, sheltered from frost by the porch roof). Be warned that if you root stems that have flower nodes you will not have young plants. You’ll have new old plants, which will promptly make tough flowering stems instead of tender growth.

(from The Modern Country Cook )

This is actually more a pistachio sauce with basil than anything that could legitimately be called pesto, but it’s a nice change from the usual, for which everyone already has a favorite recipe. I used to be of the opinion that this mixture did not freeze well but I’ve changed my mind – it’s fine. Just be sure to wrap air-tight and freeze in small quantities.

For   about 1 ½ cups, 4 to 6 servings:

1 large clove of garlic, minced fine
3 tbl. freshly grated Parmesan
4 oz. unsalted , shelled roasted pistachios
2 lightly packed cups basil leaves
1/3 to ½ cup light cream ( or ¼ cup whipping cream and some milk)

Put the garlic , cheese and nuts in a food processor and grind until the nut chunks are a bit smaller than those in chunky peanut butter. Add basil, stir to get it under the blades and grind again, freeing the leaves with a knife from time to time, until you have a homogenous paste. Whirr in enough dairy to turn the sauce the consistency of mayo. Salt to taste that’s it.

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  • Carol Ewing Said,

    I have a nice basil plant and wonder how to dry the leaves for later use. How long will one live. Thank you.

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Carol,

    welcome to the conversation. In answer to your questions:

    1. ) To dry basil leaves: harvest small branches in evening before dew falls, from plants that have not yet started to flower. Dry on screens in a warm dark place – not hotter than 100 degrees. Most dehydrators run too hot, but ovens with pilot lights ( or electric ovens with lightbulbs) work well as long as temps are monitored; you may have to keep the door open a crack. An ordinary room thermometer will give you a more accurate reading than a culinary one, btw. oh, very important: dry JUST until breakable, then pack in airtight jars. Overdrying dilutes flavor and plastic isn’t airtight..

    2.) Basil pants are tender annuals that will live until they set seed or until frost, whichever comes sooner. But they won’t stay useful for more than about 6 weeks unless you are fanatical about pinching them back and even then they’ll probably start getting tough and strong after a couple of months. Basil isn’t usually on the list of vegetables that should be started from seed several times through the summer, but it should be. Germination and growth are quick in hot weather as long as the plants have water.

  • carole Said,

    every summer I have a problem with something eating my basil. this summer I planted it in a small pot and have it sitting on a bench but still it gets nibbled on. any suggestions to prevent this?

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Carole

    My condolences on your basil problem…

    solution depends on what’s eating it. The likeliest culprits are slugs/snails and Japanese beetles so solution one is to look carefully – and frequently – to see if you can spot the nibblers.

    For slugs: basil in pots can be protected by surrounding the base of the pot with a ring of diatomaceous earth or copper tape, mollusks can’t cross either one.

    For Japanese Beetles: Try an organic formulation of neem. It can be used on food crops very close to harvest. Look for one that contains only neem, which is relatively tasteless. The more other ingredients there are, the more you’ll have to wash the basil.

    Of course, if the nibbling is minor and the damage is primarily aesthetic, the best solution may be to do nothing except being fleetingly regretful you can’t use the basil for garnishing.

    Hope this’ll help, and good luck!

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