Friday, February 20, 2009

Sweet, sweet basil.

Basil is one of my favorite herbs. Its smell reminds me of summer, it tastes great raw or cooked, and it's easy to grow. A bit too easy. As Science Guy is finding out, basil is prolific.

I've got some miracle basil growing. No, that's not a breed. I call it miracle basil because it came from nowhere. I started growing a couple of avocado trees two years ago (my intention is that, once global warming has fully kicked in, I'll have the only avocado plantation in the northeast). One of them is now about four feet tall, with a trunk - not a stem - thicker than my thumb. Last summer, it was living on my front porch. One day, I noticed something else growing in the pot, and leaned over to remove it. "
Hmmmm...this looks like basil," I thought. Rather than pluck out the entire little plant, I gently rubbed a leaf between my fingers. "Smells like basil, too. Honey!? does this smell like basil to you?" My wife came out of the house and sniffed. "Yeah, it does. Where'd it come from?" "The avocado. No, seriously. Look." So I decided to leave it to see what developed. We've now got about a dozen three-foot-tall basil plants growing happily beside the avocado. My plantation is already expanding. I still have no idea where that basil came from, but it sure does taste good, especially in the middle of winter.

Basil, despite its being green, is a great source of the anti-oxidant beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin K, iron, and fiber. In addition to being loaded with
flavonoids, its essential oils also have anti-bacterial properties which are effective against Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O:157:H7, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Simiply put, basil is good for you.

The best thing about basil, though, is its taste. Slightly sweet, slightly peppery, that overlying licorice/anise flavor, and that wonderfully fresh "green" taste all combine to make basil a terrific addition to a wide variety of foods.

OK, that really doesn't answer your questions, but it does point out that 800 pounds of basil growing in one's garage is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. So, what can you do with all of that green goodness? You've got several options.

First, you can eat it.

Try tossing some into a green salad. Or, slice some fresh tomatoes (which, by the way, are also easy to grow), add some shredded basil leaves, a clove of crushed garlic, a little chopped onion, some freshly ground pepper, a splash of olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon. Serve with some good bread and a glass of wine, and you've got a gorgeous and delicious light lunch or dinner.

Pesto! Traditionally made with a mortar and pestle (hence the name), it can also be made in a food processor. To the bowl of a food processor, add two cups of fresh basil (don't hesitate to use some of the stems here) and two cloves of fresh garlic (or more to taste). Pulse a couple of times to get things going, then slowly add a thin stream of olive oil while pulsing. How much? How much do you like olive oil? More oil makes a smoother, thinner, more unctuous pesto. Less makes a more hearty, more rustic pesto. But it's important to never leave the processor running, or you'll end up with soup. Add about half a cup of lightly toasted pine nuts. When the desired consistency is reached, transfer the pesto to a glass bowl, and gently mix in half a cup (or more)
parmigiano-reggiano and either freshly ground black pepper or, for more of a kick, some dried red-pepper flakes. Add some acid (lemon juice, red wine vinegar, orange juice), ecco la pesto! Grandpa would be proud. If you want to keep the pesto, put it into air-tight jars, leaving at least an inch-and-a-half of room at the top. Cover with olive oil, cover tightly and keep in the fridge basically forever. Add a spoonful to tomato sauce, salad dressing, plain pasta, pollenta, grilled chicken, grilled fish (salmon is ideal), burgers, pork, steak...the list goes on and on. It's important to remember that each time you use some you need to put another layer of olive oil on top in order to seal it. The anti-bacterial qualities of the basil, while powerful, do tend to lose their effectiveness over time.

When cooking with basil, add it only at the end of the process, and generally when the food has been taken off of direct heat. Cut the basil into a
chiffonade (stack the leaves on top of one another, roll into a cigar-shaped package and, using a VERY sharp knife, slice across the cigar into thin strips; the resulting shreds of basil look like chiffon, which is French for "rags") and let the residual heat of the food wilt the basil.

Second, you can dry it.

When the plants are mature, yank them up, roots and all, and hang them upside down in a warm, dry place. After some time (depending on humidity), they'll be completely dry. Spread some parchment paper (or wax paper) and rub the basil between your hands, allowing the flakes to fall onto the paper. Pour into an airtight jar and store in a cool, dark place. While the flavor won't last indefinitely, even after as long as a year,
your dried basil will taste infinitely better than that stuff you've got in a jar in your spice drawer, which has probably been there since the bubble burst.

Finally, you can freeze it. Pull the leaves from the stems, rinse them in cold water, gently pat them dry, lay them out in plastic zipper bags, squeeze as much air from the bags as possible, and toss them in the freezer. When you
need some, open a bag, break some off, refresh in warm water, pat dry, and you're good to go.

And what of the remaining 790 pounds? I'd recommend you get a stall at the local farmers' market, print up a sign that reads "Locally grown, free-range, organic basil," and charge $3.50 a bunch. In today's economy, it's the only market in which you'll get any kind of ROI.


  1. Awesome.

    I'll attempt the pesto first.

    I'm sure I've never purchased pine nuts, but we have an organic market nearby. I'm sure they'll have a bin or two at the ready.

  2. Go for it, man, and let me know how it turns out. I'm sure that once you try them, you'll become a fan of pignoli.

  3. Success!! (Sort of)

    Well, I'm a big fan of garlic, and went a little overboard.

    So the basil ended up just coming along to provide coloring. Next time I'll show more restraint.

    Until then, we won't be attacked by vampires!

  4. You can never have too much garlic, Larry. I'll be doing an entry entirely about different kinds of pesto one of these days (months?).