From herb garden to pasta bowl, basil is the king of herbs

Easy to grow, basil is a flavorful addition to many Italian vegetarian dishes.

By Liz Trementozzi

basil leaves

Photo © Liz Trementozzi. All rights reserved.

One of the most classic and best-known of all Italian herbs is basil. And why shouldn't it be, with over 150 known varieties? Basil plants range in color from bright green to red and even purple. It's an herb which artistically lends itself as a colorful addition to the culinary creations of gardeners and chefs alike.

It comes in all sizes

Small: This variety stays small in shape, like a small bush - perfect for container gardening or for use as a decorative edging plant. Two varieties which fit this purpose are the Verde piccole foglie ("small green leaves") and the Fine verde palla-greco ("Greek green ball"). But don't let their the size fool you. These plants produce an intense flavor and are wonderful in pasta dishes and sauces.

Medium: Genovese basil is what many people think of when the herb is mentioned. It's one of the more common varieties used in salads and pesto. It's also known as Italiano classico or sweet basil. You can easily bring its wonderful fragrance indoors by placing a few stems in a glass jar one quarter filled with water. Place the jar somewhere where sunlight is available. The leaves will remain fresh for about a week.

Large: The Napolitano basil, also called lettuce leaf basil, will be sure to grab your guests' attention with its amazing leaves which reach four to five inches (10 to 13 cm) in length. No flavor is compromised, so you can use this basil in pesto and other dishes, just like its Genovese counterpart.

How to plant it

Plant your basil in either late March or early April (in the Northern Hemisphere). That's because it hates the cold - anything less than 50 to 55°F (10 to 13°C). But before you plant, make sure the soil has good drainage - soak it with water a day ahead of time to give the seeds a head start. Keep the seeds 10 inches (25 cm) apart to minimize any root competition. Try not to bury them any deeper than half an inch (1 cm).

Basil goes from seed to sprout pretty quickly (about a week), with two opposing leaves alerting you to your success. Be sure to pinch off any flower buds that appear, as it takes a lot of energy from the plant to keep them going, and you want all the available energy to go into making those delicious leaves.

Remember to pick the leaves in the late morning after the dew is gone, but before the sun has had a chance to dry out the flavorful oils which live inside.

Two quick recipes

basil leaves

Photo © Liz Trementozzi. All rights reserved.

Tomato basil salad

If your garden includes tomatoes, you won't have to go far for this amazingly simple yet divine tomato basil salad.

Simply chop some tomatoes and place them in a bowl. Add in a handful of fresh basil leaves torn in pieces. Drizzle some extra-virgin olive oil over the top, mix well and let sit for a few moments to marinate. Serve cool.

This makes a wonderful midday snack, or a first course salad for your main meal. You can also extend the salad by adding sliced fresh mozzarella balls or thinly sliced red onions.

Basil flavored pasta sauce

Another great idea is to add some fresh basil leaves to your pasta sauce and cook it for an additional 15 - 20 minutes over the stove. Serve the sauce over a fresh bowl of pasta and top with some grated Italian cheese.

For a truly authentic touch, try making the pasta dough from scratch. Often this will produce a lighter texture, perfect for the recipe. You can make the dough by hand or use a food processor such as a Cuisinart processor or other brand. These should have a dough setting for mixing which can cut down on the time required for kneading. Serve with toasted garlic bread on the side.

Storing basil

Basil is a treasure which can be appreciated all year. You can freeze individual leaves by laying them on a flat surface, such as a cookie tray, and placing the tray in the freezer. After a few hours, remove the leaves and store them in small freezer containers or freezer bags. Don't forget to label and date each batch before returning it to the freezer. Come the fall and winter, you'll really appreciate this ready supply. Basil that's been frozen isn't recommended in tomato salads, but works well in many pasta recipes and sauces.

Another option is to dry your basil. Simply take a few branches, tie them together at the stems to form a bunch, which you then hang upside down, in a dry area, covered with a paper bag. After two to three weeks, the leaves should be fully dried and ready to take down. Crumble them with your hands and store the dried herbs in an airtight container. They'll last for up to 12 months.

The word basil comes from the Greek for king. It's no surprise that many cooks still regard this wonderful ingredient as the king of herbs.

Liz Trementozzi runs, a website featuring Italian recipes, and reviews on Italian kitchenware such as the Delonghi's Italian ice cream maker.

August 2010

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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