If there is one thing that signifies summer to me it’s the taste and smell of fresh basil. My wife lives for the long sunny days, my nephews cheer for summer break, but for me, summer has not truly arrived until I can walk into the garden and be greeted by the sweet smell of basil.
As you can see, the summer hasn’t proven to be a productive season of blogging for me. I haven’t been able to write a word since May (my most sincere apologies) but this doesn’t mean I have not been exploring, researching, and experimenting within the wonderful world of food! So, as we are experiencing an “Indian Summer” here in California I thought I would kick off my return to blogging by writing a series on the King of all herbs: basil.
You may be wondering why I call basil “king of the herbs.” That’s because it is! Around the world, basil is one of the most sought after and used herb for cooking. With over 40 major varieties, it’s versatility is only matched by the distinct flavors. It’s scientific name, Ocimum Basilicum, comes from the Greek meaning, “to be fragrant” (Ocimum) and “Kingly” or “Royal” (Basilicum). Hence, King of the Herbs. Its name in no way misleads its eater.
Basil truly is an incredible herb. It grows in most climates, indoors and out, can be used in most recipes, and preserves well. It has a rich and spicy flavor, coming across as mildly peppery, with just a hit of mint and clove. It has been cultivated and used in cooking for more than 5000 years in some parts of Asia and can be found to have a major role in food in North America, Asia, Europe, and is gaining popularity in South America. It contains antioxidants, antivirals, and antimicrobial properties, leading many cultures to use it for its health benefits. Traditionally in India it has been used for the treatment of stress, asthma, and diabetes. And with its “mint like” qualities, it’s been used to settle digestive complaints and dispel flatulence. Appetizing…right!? Who knew?
Well, today there are 4 types of basil that I love to use in my kitchen and grow in my garden that I want to highlight. Sweet Basil, Purple Basil, Thai Basil, and Lemon Basil. If you are unfamiliar with any of these verities you should run down local farmers market and pickup a bunch before their all gone! Or better yet, make a plan on how you can add these herbs to your garden next year…or even better, start growing them indoors this fall and winter!
Sweet Basil: This is one of the staples in my summer garden and in much of my cooking. It is similar to Genovese Basil (grown in the Genoa province of Italy) but easy to come by and grow in the States. In Italy, basil is considered a sign of love. If a woman puts out a pot of basil on the door step it means she is ready to receive a suiter. Interesting right? Sweet Basil has a strong clover sent when it is fresh. It is rich and spicy with a mint and liquorish finish. However, if cooked for too long it can lose much of it’s flavor so it should always be added at the end of cooking. Sweet Basil is used mostly for pesto and freshly produced items such as Caprece Salad, and can be found at most groceries stores and your local farmers market. Check out my Flowering Basil Salad for another interesting use of basil.
Purple Basil: This variety is identified by its large ruffled purple leaves and amazing white and pink flowers. It is beautiful and fragrant with a much stronger flavor (a little more anis-like) than Sweet Basil and adds wonderful color and flavor to vinegars and salads. I grow Purple Basil in containers on my back patio and they bring a much needed vibrancy to the garden. It adds dramatic flare to any back yard BBQ or picnic as Purple Basil Lemonade. It can also kick your romantic dinner up a notch in Steamed Mussels with Purple Basile and White Wine or with a Basil-Garlic Butter sauce. Yum!
Thai Basil: This is an amazing plant t0 cook with. Unlike other basils, Thai Basil holds up under a higher and more extended heat. This means it can have a greater influence on the “base flavor” of your dish as it can be cooked in! It is a key ingredient in Thai Green and Red Curries and has a more “licorice” flavor than other types of basil. It’s tall purple stalk with narrow leaves is unique to this verity. I personally have not done much cooking with this type of basil but plan too in the near future!
Lemon Basil: This verity was only introduced to my culinary world within the last year or two but it has had a great impact. It has a sweet lemony flavor and aroma while still maintaining the deep earthy richness and spice of Sweet Basil. I love to use this herb when cooking with fish and other seafood and growing it brings a amazing citrusy quality to the garden. Interesting enough, cats and other animals that might be prone to dig in your garden really don’t like the small of this herb (along with rosemary and lavender) and might avoid your garden all together if you are growing it. It’s a win-win situation! You get great herbs growing in your garden and it is much easier than trapping all the neighborhood cats that seem to end up in your backyard!
Growing Tips: If you are interested in stepping into the wild adventure that is backyard gardening or if you have already begun and want to add more flare and verity then basil is a great way to start! Don’t be misled, starting basil from seed is not as easy as some may say. I recommend buying plants at your local garden shop but if you are insistent on using seed then you will want to start them indoors at least 45 days before your last frost or when you want them to be planted. Basil is a slow germinating plant and vary delicate as a seedling so you will want to be gentle with them until they are strong enough to handle the outdoors. Technically, you can plant your seedlings once they have two leaves on top but I would wait longer.
After you have planted your basil and once the plants are grown and matured (have a reasonable length stalk) you will want to trim off the top two leaves. If you look closely you will see two tiny little leaves at the base of every leaf. If the stalk that grows between them is trimmed then each leaf will grow outward causing your basil garden to flourish. Be careful not to damage either of these leaves in the trimming. Once your basil begins to bud and flower you will want to trim just below the two leaves below the buds. The flowers blooming causes a hormonal change within the basil that stunts it growth and can cause the leave to not be a flavorful. You will want to watch your basil because on warm summer days this can happen almost overnight. So it is best to trim them as soon as you see a few buds on top.
With constant trimming your basil garden will produce flavorful leaves all summer long and leave you with basil well into the fall, depending on temperatures. I am still trimming and harvesting basil and we are in the last week of September. I hope this post has encouraged you to explore the wonderful world of backyard gardening and inspired you to get into the kitchen and make some amazing food with fresh basil. Happy cooking!