Fresh Basil

Zipper bags of basil puree freeze well.

A jar of pesto, which will keep in the refrigerator for a week.

Basil forming a flower head - time to pinch!
My biggest challenge with growing basil this year has been keeping up with it. Basil is an annual culinary herb and it loves this summer's sunshine, regular watering, and hot weather. It is a species of the mint family, as its square stem indicates, and mints are vigorous growers. There are many varieties of basil, like Thai basil and lemon basil, but I have the best results with common sweet basil. The more you trim off the leafy branches, the thicker the plant grows. The plant wants to fulfill its life cycle, sending up flower stalks which would eventually create seeds for next year… a signal to the basil plant that its growing season is over. So the successful basil grower's job is to keep the flower heads pinched off, extending the basil growing season all summer. If you love the fragrance and taste as much as I do, that's not usually a problem, because you'll be picking it continuously. My problem is that I planted so many; I started my own seedlings and they germinated very well. I ended up planting 18 in the garden, among the tomato plants. I've pruned the plants continuously, even a few times when I wasn't using the basil (not wasted - it went into the compost pile). Now that it's late August, I've frozen all the minced basil and pesto that I'll need for the next year, and I'm not using it fresh often enough to keep my plants from becoming bushes!

Here are my tips for basil:

HARVESTING: Pick the basil as near to when you will be using it as possible. It's best picked in the morning after the dew has dried and before the sun is too hot. If you plan to chop it up right away, you can cut the top 2-5" of each stem. Pinch just above a set of leaves to encourage bushy new growth. If it will be more than an hour until you use it, I've found it best to cut stems long enough to place in a container of water, just as you would with a flower bouquet. You can leave this basil bouquet on the kitchen counter, cutting off leaves as needed, and enjoying the licorice-scent that fills the air. I've had some success washing basil leaves, drying them in a lettuce spinner, then storing wrapped in a paper towel in a sealed zipper bag in the refrigerator. Refrigerated for any length of time, the leaves will begin to turn black.

USING: I commonly strip the basil leaves from their stems, since the stems can be tough. Chop the basil leaves with a knife, manual chopper, or in a food processor. I try to work quickly, whether using the basil to add to something I'll be eating right away, or preparing it for refrigeration or freezing (see below). Use the basil in a Salad Caprese with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and topped with my Caesar Dressing; make it into pesto for top tossing with cooked pasta; add it to tomato soup near the end of heating; spread it on toasted Italian bread as a brushetta. I use my pesto as a layer in traditional lasagna, or mixed with sour cream and dried onions for a dip. Try adding it to bread dough and stir fried veggies.

REFRIGERATING OR FREEZING: If I have more basil than I will use immediately, I chop the leaves fine in the food processor, then add just enough olive oil to hold the chopped leaves together and blend thoroughly. I spoon this into either a small jar or a zip bag. In either case, you want to keep the basil from exposure to the air, because its surface will darken. So before I cover the small jar, I lay a piece of plastic wrap over the top surface, pressing it down against the puree. Before I seal a zip bag of pesto or pureed basil, I flatten the bag, guiding the basil into the corners, then press out the air before zipping the bag closed. These flat bags stack nicely in the freezer. You can also fill a designated ice cube tray with basil puree, freeze, then pop the cubes into a zipper bag, making convenient portions to add to soups and dips. Friends also tell me they successfully freeze zip bags of whole fresh basil leaves, but I found that takes up too much valuable freezer space compared with basil purees.

DRYING: Basil is one herb which has less flavor when dried than when fresh, but dried basil is still tasty. I air dry the freshly picked leaves on a framed screen for a few days until they are brittle, then store in a jar in a dark cabinet until ready to use.