Monday, 5 August 2013

BASIL - A Most Popular Herb

Basil is definitely one of my favourite herbs. I love the smell of it, the taste of it, working with it and the many ways to use it – as a culinary herb, invigorating tea herb and, in a minor way, a cosmetic herb - and I've included some easy recipes (Pesto anyone?) further on to support that statement.

Basil is considered one of the Italian herbs with basil and tomato an unbeatable combination. Basil can be used in omelets and scrambled eggs, salads, rice dishes, mushroom dishes, added to soups and any chicken dish. It really perks up a tomato soup, pizza or any other tomato dish. It is the main ingredient for pesto and makes an energizing broth-like tea.

It’s an easy to grow annual in the garden in summer and a good choice for the windowsill garden in winter. Basil is harvested from the top down, leaving the lower portion to keep growing. The leaves can be frozen, dried or preserved in vinegar. 
If you don't have basil in the garden, now is the time to buy a plant or two so they have a chance to grow  a bit outside before being brought in for winter. (I'll discuss the how-tos in September.) Check with Richter's for plants available.
The best time to cut herbs is just before they flower, unless of course the flowers are the part used as in chamomile and lavender. When cutting herbs, timing is everything – there can’t be any dew left on the plants and the sun can’t yet have evaporated the oil – so midmorning is usually the best time. The oil is what gives the herb its flavour and aroma - it is fragile and quick to disappear, so herbs should only be picked at the time they're to be used. (This is why the cut herbs bought in the store will never equal the quality of the herbs grown at home.)

Handle herbs carefully to avoid releasing the oils, then using a salad spinner quickly wash herbs in very cold water, spin dry, and empty onto paper towel to absorb leftover moisture, then proceed:
To freeze: Preferred method: Place herbs in freezer bags and freeze. I use plastic sandwich bags to freeze smaller amounts and pop those into a larger freezer bag. That way I only need to pull out the right amount needed without disturbing the rest.
To oven dry: Place herbs in single layer on cookie sheet. Preheat oven to 150F - turn off when temperature is reached - place the herbs in oven - reheat oven to 120F - 150F once a day to keep the oven warm and the herbs drying. Once herbs are dry, remove from oven, store in tightly closed paper bags in a cool, dry place. Herbs can also be dried in the microwave and while this will be faster, there is a danger that the herb will be 'cooked', which removes the oil. I know the theory, but frankly, I've never had much luck drying herbs - freezing is easier and, as far as I'm concerned, maintains better herbal quality. 
Vinegar: 1 cup fresh herbs to two cups white wine vinegar. Bruise herbs a bit, place in clean, sterilized jars, pour vinegar over the herbs, cover tightly, then store in a dark place at room temperature. Shake once a day, then after a week or so, check to see if its strong enough. If yes, strain and put into a clean, sterilized container, seal tightly, and store in dark place. If no, let steep for a while longer until taste is as desired.  Use for salad dressing, to marinate meat or to add to stews.

One day this past week I went out around ten o’clock to cut basil, parsley and chives. The books tell you not to wash the herbs but to wipe the leaves with a barely damp towel, but I found that using my salad spinner (as above) to wash herbs works like a charm - you just have to work fast and try not to bruise the herbs. The Spicy Globe Basil I like has tiny leaves that would be impossible to wipe.

Some favourite Basil uses:
Basil Tea: Bring 1 cup cold water to a boil for every tablespoon of fresh basil (1 teaspoon dried), chopped fine. Pour the boiling water over the herb and let steep for 10 minutes - use a teapot with lid to prevent the essential oils from escaping. This tastes more like a broth than other teas, which makes it a lovely reviving mid-afternoon drink.

Pesto: great with Penne, Spaghetti, New Potatoes, Salmon or as a Dip for Toast.
Place in blender:
2 cups basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
¾ cup parmesan cheese
Blend while slowly adding ¾ cup good olive oil until you have a thick paste as shown at right.
Optional: Add ½ cup walnuts or pine nuts or raw sunflower seeds.
Adding 1 cup parsley or spinach to the basil, garlic and cheese is another option.
Makes enough for  454g. pack of penne.
Do not heat pesto, its served at room temperature.
Pesto can be frozen – using plastic cups to freeze pesto, them removing them once the pesto is frozen and sealing the pesto in plastic freezer bags works really well – to bring to room temperature, just pop the frozen pesto back into the same type of cup to thaw – no muss, no fuss.
To prepare penne - follow package instructions. Toss drained penne with pesto and serve. Can add a cup or so of cooked, cubed chicken, if desired.

Here’s a link to a meatless recipe sent to me by my niece who declares its really good - she's a fabulous cook so when she says something is good, I listen.
One pot wonder tomato basil pasta recipe

Add finely chopped herbs to butter  

Basil Butter: From Great Herb Mixes by Jim Long (available from Richter's.)
Mash 1 cup finely chopped basil and 1Tbsp. lemon juice into 2 cups (1lb.) softened butter. Shape into a log and freeze. (Heating the lemon in the microwave for 10 seconds will yield more juice).
Use as a spread on bread, muffins or crackers. Cut off slices as needed to melt over vegetables, chicken, in
                                                       stir-fry or any other creative way of choice.
  Variation: ½ cup finely chopped basil, ½ cup finely           chopped chives, 1Tbsp. lemon juice to 2 cups        softened butter.

 Shown at left - 1/2 cup rolls ready to freeze. The butter is wrapped in plastic wrap before placing in freezer bag.

Basil Bath Vinegar: Vinegar is good for the skin as it has the ability to close pores and restore the skin's ph balance which keeps both oily and dry skin clear and soft. Soaking herbs in vinegar removes the oil from the herb into the vinegar so now the vinegar contains the goodness of both. Fill a clean, sterilized jar with fresh herb leaves, cover with vinegar and let it sit for a week or so. Then strain into a clean jar with lid or stoppper, cover tight and its ready to use.  Use half a cup to a tubful for a re-energizing bath.

Jim Long is one of my favourite authors of herbal books -  his herbal recipes are easy to read, simple to follow and do not use exotic, hard to find ingredients. This particular book covers seasonings, sleep pillows, allergy eye pillows, aromatherapy pillows, catnip mouse instructions, Doggie breath mint cookies and more. Fun to read and use. Book available from Richter's.

And thus we come to the end of the post for another week.

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I want this blog to be interesting, informative and current. Your comments let me know if I'm on track, so comments are greatly appreciated.
Thanks - Lenie