Chasing After Basil

IMG_3827One of the surest ways to know summer has arrived is to put a few basil seeds in the soil in late spring, stand back, and then watch for them to take off like rockets — going from 4-6 sets of leaves to a giant stalk of peppery green majesty in no time.

Though basil is very sensitive to temperature and moisture, it’s an otherwise easy herb to grow: it sprouts quickly, needs only average soil conditions, and (if tended properly) will continue to produce for much of the growing season. With even less than a dozen seedlings, you can produce enough fresh basil to do many ambitious things in your kitchen!

For me, I think the biggest hurdle to clear in growing basil was learning how to prune/harvest it. My first experience growing basil was in in a tiny little garden I started in a small bit of ground behind an apartment in South Louisiana. That year, I’d bought a 4-inch pot of basil from a garden center along with some other flowers and things and was eager to experience fresh basil right outside my back door.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really understand how to harvest it, so — rather than using it to its full potential — I more or less let it grow taller and taller and less and less potent. Instead of cutting the stems, I was merely pulling off leaves here and there, hoping to not hurt the plant’s feelings or make it look unsightly in any way. I didn’t realize that basil needs to be kept under control in order to get the most flavor and best leaves from the plant.

On most varieties, basil leaves tend to grow in pairs of sets. Once a basil sprout gets about four of these sets, you should cut the main stem back, leaving two sets of leaves. This seemingly harsh pruning is actually the first step in getting a basil plant to produce the maximum amount of leaves. From the two sets of leaves you leave on the plant, there will spring many more stems and sets as the season goes along. Careful pruning will lead to a bushy plant with lots of tasty leaves rather than a tall, lanky plant with useful leaves only at the top.

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I’ve come to realize that basil is really only interested in growing flowers, making seeds, and then waiting for the killing frost to come. It has no consideration whatsoever for my culinary needs; its main goal is only to complete its life cycle. To harness basil’s untapped potential, you must continue to prune the plant so that it never gets a chance to flower. (If you want to save seeds from your basil, you can let the flowers bloom and produce seed much later in the season and still have plenty of seeds.) In the earlier part of the season, tending basil seems easy enough, but — as the real heat of summer arrives — basil grows by leaps and bounds and you’re constantly chasing after it with pruning shears.

And what do you do with all of that fresh basil? There are tons of recipes to be explored featuring varying amounts of fresh basil. You can also use the fresh leaves to make unbelievably delicious flavored oils and vinegars, or dry the leaves and keep them in your spice cabinet for a kick of basil flavor in a slow-simmered tomato sauce or other recipes. (For more details about drying your own herbs, check out this entry.)

Since I’m working with a basil patch of limited size in our container garden, I’m forced to use our fresh IMG_3832basil more judiciously. I dried the leaves from the first pruning which got the plants to bushing out properly. Not too long ago, I harvested some leaves, again, to prevent flowering, and used them for a quick tomato sauce. But, always, my real reason for growing basil is to make homemade pesto. So, you can imagine my glee when — practically overnight — our little basil patch took off like a rocket in the summer heat. I knew it was time to seize the moment!

What is pesto?

Pesto, in one form or another, has been around for a very long time — dating as far back as the early Roman times in Italy. Being such an old idea, it’s no surprise that its ingredients are simple and few. Five ingredients: fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. These are quite flavorful ingredients on their own, so you can imagine their potency once they’re combined!

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The traditional method of preparing pesto was to pound the ingredients together in a mortar and pestle. These days, modern cooks typically turn to a food processor or blender to get the job done in less time and with less sweat! There are many varieties of pesto recipes which incorporate different herbs, oils, and cheeses — sometimes excluding basil entirely. One of my favorites is a sage-walnut pesto that’s right at home in autumnal dishes.

How to Make Pesto

With my trusty pruning shears, I set to work on our basil patch until I’d amassed quite a pile of basil IMG_3829branches. In the past, I’d immediately take my loot inside. However, experience has taught me to do the next couple of steps outdoors, if possible. Why? I know it’s not the same spider every year, but there is always a spider in my basil harvest — without fail. I’m not even sure what kind of spider it is — I’m sure it’s harmless — but, if it leaps out in my kitchen I’ll be forced to shriek and kill it. If it shows itself outside, I can simply shake it back into the basil patch and let it be. So, for the sake of the spider, I took the leaves off the stems outside on the balcony. Yep, she was in there, alright… and she was spared.

IMG_3831After plucking the leaves from the stems, I placed them in a salad spinner to wash them and then spin them dry. It’s especially important to rinse herbs in cold water to remove dirt and debris (or opportunistic spiders), and then dry them as delicately as possible so that you don’t bruise leaves and release the flavorful oils.

Next, I gathered up the rest of the pesto ingredients. If you’ve never tried pine nuts, you’re in for a treat. They’re not actually nuts, but rather seeds taken from a few different species of pine trees. They’ve got an interesting buttery-nutty flavor that adds depth and texture to the pesto. They can be expensive, however, since they’re not widely grown in North America. A great substitute for pine nuts, in my opinion, would be English Walnuts or Black Walnuts.

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Homemade Pesto
Yields approximately 3/4 cup

    4 cups fresh basil leaves, washed and spun dry
    1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts, lightly toasted and cooled
    2 ounces freshly grated parmesan cheese (about 1/3 cup)
    2 large peeled garlic cloves (or to taste)
    3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
    1/4 teaspoon salt

    Place all of the ingredients into the food processor. Pulse several times until the mixture is finely chopped, then process steadily until the mixture forms a coarse-textured paste (stopping to scrape down the sides of the processor as necessary).

You can store your pesto in an airtight container in the fridge if you’ll be using it up within a week or two. Since we like to have fresh pesto year-round, my favorite way to store it is to place it in a small zipper bag and freeze it. A frozen log of homemade pesto is your ticket to instant flavor! To use it, just remove the pesto from the bag, slice off the amount you need, then put the rest back into the freezer. It keeps indefinitely.

IMG_3836If you’re going to be using it on pasta, you can just toss thin slices of frozen pesto into the hot pasta, stirring until it melts. If you’ll need to spread the pesto, it thaws very quickly in the microwave (10-15 seconds at the most). One of our favorite ways to use homemade pesto is to make pesto salmon: spread pesto generously atop salmon fillets; sprinkle with a mixture of lightly oiled breadcrumbs, freshly grated parmesan, and cracked black pepper; then bake until the salmon flakes easily with a fork. For an unexpected reminder of summer in the dead of winter, you might try tossing a teaspoon or two of it into a bowl of hot chicken soup just before serving. The possibilities are endless!

With our little basil patch of about 12-15 plants, I was able to harvest enough basil to make two full batches of pesto for our freezer (one with pine nuts, one with black walnuts), make an impromptu tomato-basil pizza, and still have enough to fill a shelf in the drying rack to be used later. The best news? Summer’s just started and the basil was in no way discouraged… I’m still chasing after it! There will definitely be more basil recipes, this summer!

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~ by Jason on July 7, 2011.

9 Responses to “Chasing After Basil”

  1. Running off to prune my basil plants RIGHT NOW!!
    Excellent post, thank you so much for taking the trouble to write such a comprehensive piece on basil-prolonging! Just what I needed!
    Have subscribed for more lovely stuff ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks so much for reading (and subscribing)!

      Other than vegetables, I have a hard time bringing myself to harvest or prune most of the plants I’ve grown over the years. I’m afraid of hurting the plant, I suppose. At least with basil, not only does pruning/harvesting not harm the plant, it aids the plant. Fresh basil to use up plus healthier plants: win-win! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • My pleasure! Was just so delighted to read this post today ๐Ÿ™‚
        You described your hesitation in pruning so well, I could totally relate to it. I used to pick off leaves here and there (scared to harm it!) myself, so I’m really happy to learn that it actually helps the plant to prune.
        I just harvested a whole bunch of beautifully fragrant leaves right now (meant it when I said I was running off to do that) and came back here to jot down the recipe for pesto….only to see your prompt reply ๐Ÿ™‚
        Need to go get me some chilghozas (that’s what pine nuts are called in Urdu) and parmesan. The rest I already have at home ๐Ÿ™‚
        Great tip for freezing too Jason, could you possibly have missed anything in this post? ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • Btw, you might want to rephrase this : ‘2 ounces freshly grated basil (about 1/3 cup)’ ๐Ÿ˜€

      • Thanks for catching my silly error! After having a SECOND person point it out, I finally caught what everyone was saying. I guess that’s the fault in being both the author AND editor of your own writing! Thanks, again, for reading. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Jason, the recipe is what says “freshly grated basil”, while parmesan is conspicuously absent ๐Ÿ˜‰

        And, via iPhone, this seems it is going to put my comment in the wrong order, so apologies, for that.

      • Hi Angela. Thanks for catching the error. Munira was trying to tell me about that error and I apparently had basil on the brain and didn’t catch what she was saying! I’ve edited the post, now… hopefully no one out there in cyberspace attempted to grate basil OR to make pesto sans parmesan. ๐Ÿ˜€

  2. I learned so much, thanks.Know anything about sage, parsley and chocolate mint herbs? I’ll keep reading your posts.

    • Thanks for reading! ๐Ÿ™‚

      For the most part, harvesting sage, parsley, and mint are the same as harvesting basil. In fact, mint and basil are in the same family of plants. You can harvest mint leaves in the same manner as basil. Regular harvesting — whether you use the leaves fresh or dry them — will encourage more growth on your mint plants. The main difference is that mint tends to get very ambitious — sending out more and more stems, roots, and leaves. If not in a container or kept in check, it will annex an entire garden.

      Parsley is more or less oblivious to harvesting, in my experience. Harvesting more frequently doesn’t seem to encourage more growth, but it certainly doesn’t hinder the plant in any way. Just cut the stems as close to the base of the plant as you can so that you don’t get a lot of unsightly and unnecessary plant debris that can attract pests. I’ve cut parsley back to 1-2 measly stems and it always comes roaring back as long as it has plenty of good sunlight.

      Sage doesn’t grow as quickly as the other herbs, so you’d be wise to prune it sparingly, or at least let it catch up between harvests. If you love sage and have the space, I’d encourage you to have more than one plant. For the most part, though, keeping sage in containers can be challenging since the container does bind the roots up and stunt the growth of the plant (at least in my experience). Because of space limitations, I currently have only one sage plant, but I love it dearly. It’s been with us for two seasons, now, and doesn’t ask much in return: a little compost every now and then, regular watering, and a sheltered place to spend the winter.

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