Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Growing, Harvesting and Using Sweet Basil

Growing: This is the first year that sweet basil ( Ocimum basilicum ) has really taken off in my garden. It is located in the border outside the main garden. This spot gets sun most of the day, with a bit of shade in the late afternoon from the arbor just to the NW of the plants. The soil is heavy clay, with some compost added each year. The plants survived the drought conditions here in Texas very well with only minimal watering. Toward the end of the summer, the leaves were small, about the size of my thumb, but still tasted great. In September, we began to water this patch heavily and the plants quickly responded by putting on a new flush of large (almost palm sized) leaves.

Harvesting: The leaf is the edible part of the basil plant. To harvest for meals (usually pesto cream sauce, mmmm) we simply plucked leaves from the plant as needed.

Near the end of the summer, the plants bolted and began to flower and set seed. Since this has become a favorite cooking herb of my family, I decided to harvest and save some of the seeds for next years basil crop (if it does not self seed for next year, which I hope it will).

After it flowered, I allowed the blooms to dry on the plant (this was more of a happy accident and the result of garden neglect more than any actual planning or foresight on my part). We collected the dried flowers put them in a colander, which was then placed over another bowl.

Using pre-school labor, we crushed the dried flowers and seed pods to release the tiny black seeds. Shaking the colander gently to allow the seeds to fall through to the bowl below.

Once most of the seed heads had been crushed, we gently blew the chaff away from the seeds, leaving about 1/4 cup of dark black basil seeds.

Uses: Our favorite use is to make Pesto and Pesto Cream sauce (recipe to follow). I also add leaves to spaghetti sauce, stir fry and salad dressings.

Another fun Basil use is to prepare seed packets for friends. In this case, I wanted to share seeds with the attendees of my bread baking class (we made pesto with dinner) so we prepared several seed packets.

I used tiny zipper top bags (like the kind that come with the extra button when you buy a new shirt) and portioned off about 1/2 tsp of seeds per bag. We cut a sheet of plain white paper into small rectangles, folded them in half, and then stapled them onto the bag. My son drew a picture of a basil leaf and I labeled each packet Sweet Basil.

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