The Kitchen Garden
Bring on the Basil
The king of herbs spices up summertime
By Jan Leitschuh
Many of you are eaters of fresh produce, not growers. I get that.
However, if you grow nothing else, you can grow basil. Fresh basil is the classic fragrance of a foodie’s hot-weather feast, the symphonic notes in the Sandhills’ summer bounty. Food writers call basil “The King of Herbs” for the commanding accent it brings to seasonal food.
A cool plate of juicy heirloom tomatoes sliced simply with fresh mozzarella and topped with fresh basil, cracked pepper and balsamic is about as good as it gets in July. Unless, of course, it’s a fresh peach, goat chèvre and basil salad . . . or a pizza margherita with fresh basil leaves . . . or basil chicken with lemon . . . or a cucumber, basil and lime gimlet . . .
You see? No mention yet of pesto, which is delicious nonetheless.
Yes, you non-kitchen-gardener you, you can grow basil. Just buy a 4-inch pot and set it in a window box. Or in a planter. Tuck a plant outside your back door, right in the dirt. In fact, if you have a sunny window, you can even grow it indoors. The store-bought fresh packs are convenient but costly, and, if you are a basil lover, insufficient. Just grow some already.
For so much flavor, basil’s wants are simple: sunshine and lots of it. And warmth. Water when the soil gets dry which, in a full-on Sandhills summer, can be daily.
With a little pinching — or rather, harvesting — of a few pungent, glossy leaves, sweet basil will grow into a vigorous bushy ball, about a foot or two high.
And while we savor the Mediterranean notes that basil brings to our summer tables, it turns out it’s also a very healthy addition to our diets. Basil is a brain enhancer. Certain antioxidants in basil are considered protective shields for the brain, preventing oxidative stress. Eating basil, which contains minerals like manganese, may be useful in preventing cognitive decline.
Anti-inflammatory elements of basil help quell the burning of arthritis, or soothe the acid indigestion you’ll surely get from scarfing that whole pizza pie. A great source of vitamin K, basil also helps build strong bones, and its phenolics and anthocyanins make it a useful addition to a cancer-fighting diet.
Beyond the sweet or Genovese basils, you can find the beautiful purple-leaved basils such as Red Rubin and Dark Opal. These dark lovelies are garden accents in and of themselves. Other cultivars are available with different tastes, including cultivars with cinnamon, clove, lemon and lime notes. Holy basil, or tulsi, is another flavor altogether. Start with the tried and true sweet basil, and branch out from there.
Potted plants are readily available in the spring, but basil is easy and inexpensive to start from seed. Press a few seeds into a pot and water. You can do this monthly to ensure a continuous supply.
As the daylight shortens, your basil will try to flower. Pinch these off immediately. You are trying to keep it in the fragrant vegetative (leafy) state, not allowing it to send its energy into reproduction (flowers and seeds).
To keep cut basil fresh in your kitchen, treat it like the lovely bouquet it is. Trim the stems and put them in a jar or glass of water on your counter. Cover it with a loose plastic bag if you want. Never put fresh leaves in the fridge, where they will blacken.
At some point in the summer, you will have a lot of basil. This is a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say. Think ahead to those basil-less winter pizzas, fish dishes and pastas (sad trumpet sound). How do you think pesto got invented? It uses scads of basil. If your summers are busy and you don’t have time to combine with pine nuts or walnuts, and pecorino cheese, just rinse off a batch and whir it with simple olive oil. Freeze in ice cube trays and re-bag. Pull out a basil cube on a joyless, sunless winter day when you need to remember the sunshine.
Or, using the bounty of July, serve up something cool:
Tomato, Basil and Watermelon Skewers
Alternate squares of watermelon with feta squares, basil and halved cherry tomatoes.
Arrange on a platter, drizzle with EVOO and a good balsamic vinegar. Have a party and share the flavor. PS
Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative.