Basil - an herb for all tastes!
This is the first of two articles on this most exotic of herbs. The mention of the name evokes a sense of spice and travel. It is a simple word that belies the complexity of flavours most types of Basil produce. Unlike other herbs that have a simple on level of taste this popular herb has layers of flavour. At first there is the strong initial hit of clove followed by layers of citrus, anise and camphor all in different levels depending on the variety.
The name Basil has a myriad of possible origins depending on what part of the world you come from. However the suggested Greek word from which it is said to derive refers to the King. This is appropriate as many modern day cooks feel it is such an important herb it should be called the 'King of Herbs'.
Basil belongs to the genus Ocimum which consists of around 35 species form all the continents but Australia. There are several of which make most of the commonly used culinary forms and several hybrids of these. For such a widely grown herb the range of common names, although extensive is not too messy. This is probably due to the common name referring to the flavour of the cultivar or species.
The most common species is O.basilicum which includes the widely know 'Sweet Basil' that is so popular in southern European culture. There are a number of sub species which are also popular in Asian cooking including O. basilicum thyrsiflora or Thai Basil. This cultivar has a much higher level of the anise flavour.
Most of the Basil varieties are short lived annuals and will die with the first frost. Anytime the temperature drops below 10C they will look a bit sad until they have had a few warm days. The large leaved varieties do well in part shade with lots of morning sun. The small leaved forms need a lot more sun. They will grow in full sun if kept moist but need a bit of air movement and free draining soil. The purple leaved forms may suffer from too much strong sun and are best watered in mid morning before the sun gets too hot.
They are all best planted in late spring (in southern states) when the soil has started to warm and the last frost has passed. They can be grown in a heated glass house all year if desired. They are quick growers so will need to be well fed with any good quality nitrogen source. Like all of the short lived and annual herbs, the more they are used the more they will produce. Some varieties, like Thai Basil are prolific flower producers. Flowers should be removed ideally as they appear but they do make good garnishes so can be picked when full but prior to setting seed.
Depending on where they are grown the plants will die in mid to late autumn or when the first frost appears. If they have been well fed, kept moist and used regularly they will be quite bushy and around 60cm tall. There will be a mass of good aromatic foliage to be harvested. By this stage most people will have had enough Pesto for the year and there are only so many dishes you can have with fresh Basil.
However it doesn't have to be wasted. Simply harvest all the leaves and stems as late as possible. Place in a large container with some olive oil. The blend into a paste. The amount of oil will depend on how much material there is and how moist it is. Just enough should be used to make a smooth paste. Then place the paste in the freezer. Either in a small container to produce a frozen block. This can then be grated into any dish requiring Basil or place in an ice block tray and the 'Basil' blocks can be used as needed. The top of the block may darken slightly but the rest will retain its nice green colour.
Next month we will look at some of the many varieties of Basil.
Asparagus and Tomato salad. Simple but tasty salad to serve as a side dish for fish dishes.
Ingredients: Bunch (10 thin spears) of fresh green or purple asparagus, dozen cherry tomatoes, garlic, Basil, extra virgin olive oil
Cut Asparagus in to 2cm lengths and tomatoes into quarters.
Crush three cloves of garlic (more or less to taste) and chop half cup of fresh basil leaves.
Place a tablespoon of the olive oil in a wok, frypan or BBQ. Place all the ingredients into the hot oil and cook until the tomato skins start to split (approx 4 mins).
Remove from the heat and serve. Can eaten hot a side dish or cold as a salad.