Fresh basil will add a whole new dimension to your dishes

Image by Selling of my photos with StockAgencies is not permitted from PixabayImage by Selling of my photos with StockAgencies is not permitted from PixabaySweet Basil remains one of the most popular kitchen herbs, and in summer when the intoxicating scent of fresh basil fills produce markets, enjoy its brief season fully. The sweet-and-spicy flavour of basil is welcome in so many cuisines and will add a whole new dimension to your dishes!

We all know basils affinity with tomatoes and how important it is in Italian cooking. After all, what would pizza be like without basil, or the delicious salad called “Caprese salad or Salad of Capri” - a simple Italian antipasto (starter), made with freshly sliced mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, seasoned with salt, and olive oil.

Click on the cover to read moreClick on the cover to read moreAn excerpt from my latest e-book "Growing Culinary Herbs in South Africa"  Read more here...

Basil also has an important place in herbal lore and legend, spanning many ages and cultures. It is thought to have originated in Africa and other tropical and subtropical regions of the Old and New World. Basil was grown in Egypt 4,000 years ago; and in India it has been revered and cultivated for thousands of years. It is highly probable that it was brought to ancient Greece by Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) and made its way to England from India in the mid-1500s; arriving in the United States in the early 1600s. Basil was grown in medieval gardens and is mentioned in many classic herbals, and references to basil can also be found in poetry, prose and art, from The Middle Ages to the present.

Basil is also a part of religious traditions around the world, from Christianity to Hinduism. Although there is no mention of Basil in the Bible, the plant is said to have grown at the site of Christ’s crucifixion, and is associated with St. Basil, whose feast day is celebrated in Greece on January 1st by having basil blessed at church. Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is particularly sacred in Hindu tradition and is thought to be the manifestation of the goddess Tulasi, and to have grown from her ashes.

Basil is related to mint, and there are over 40 cultivars, both annual and perennial. These differ vastly, not only in flavour, but also in growth form, leaf colours and shapes. This abundance often leads to confusion when trying to identifying specific cultivars, so always buy your seeds or plants from a reputable source.

Health Benefits:

Today we know that Basil leaves have many important plant derived chemical compounds which have disease preventing and health promoting properties.

Sweet Basil is low in calories, has almost no fat, and is an excellent source of iron and vitamin A - with only 100g of fresh basil leaves containing an astounding 175% of the daily required dose! Vitamin A is known to have antioxidant properties and is essential for vision and for maintaining healthy skin. Basil contains minerals like calcium, potassium, manganese, copper and magnesium, and also provides us with healthy doses of vitamins K, and C.

In the Kitchen:

Basil, with its sweet-and-spicy flavour, makes an excellent dried herb, but fresh basil will add a whole new dimension to your dishes!

Genovese Basil is an important ingredient in Italian cooking and is considered the best basil for use in recipes like pesto, and tomato and basil sauce. Everyone knows that basil has a special affinity with tomato-based dishes and pasta sauces; and how delicious it is on pizza; but this versatile herb is not only limited to tomatoes and pasta! For seasonal flair, try adding ribbons of chopped basil to summer soups like tomato or mixed summer vegetables. Use it to brighten up egg, chicken and fish dishes, or pair it with lamb, beef, liver and kidneys. Basil also combines well with soft cheeses, mushrooms, eggplant, baby marrow, peppers, peas, corn, and lentils.

Basil is fantastic with fruits like watermelon, lime, lemon, mango and strawberry. Be adventurous with basil - make Strawberry-Basil Margaritas - they're a guaranteed party win!

If you have a glut of Basil in the garden, a delicious way to use it up is to make pesto sauces. Pesto sauce is one of the most versatile condiments around - jazzing up so many dishes. Basil pesto. Image by RitaE from PixabayBasil pesto. Image by RitaE from Pixabay

And there are so many pesto recipes you will be spoilt for choice! Basically, pesto is a blend of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, salt and olive oil. Drizzle it over fish, or simply toss it over warm pasta for a super quick meal. Add it to salad dressings and marinades; spice up a potato salad by adding some pesto to your mayonnaise; or spread it on bread and flatbreads. Pesto will freeze beautifully for months and is a great way to preserve an abundant harvest. 

Thai Basil is used in all types of Thai cooking as well as other Asian and middle eastern cuisines,  where it is practically considered a vegetable rather than an herb; and relished for its spicy basil aroma and flavour, infused with liquorice and cinnamon. The leaves of Holy Basil taste peppery, almost like a cross between ginger and mint, and are used in Thai cooking; and as an ingredient in Ethiopian spice mixtures. Add a few finely chopped leaves to salads, stir-fries, hot peppers, chicken, pork, beef; and pasta and fish dishes. It can also be added to fruits, custards and desserts.

In the Garden:

Although basil is considered a premiere culinary herb, some perennial varieties like many of the purple-leaved types also look great in the flower border. Thai Basil is one of the prettiest to plant in the garden, with its small mint-green leaves, attractive purple stems and deep purple flowers. Thai basil is also a resilient plant, regardless of climate, and although it doesn't really like cold weather, it tolerates cold better than its cousins, and in warmer regions it can be grown all year round.

Companion Planting:

Basil is related to mint and, like other plants in this family, it is attractive to bees, and therefore well worth growing near vegetables and fruit which need pollinating. Not only does basil taste great with tomatoes, it also grows great with tomatoes, and this companion plant will protect the tomatoes against white fly.

Thai Basil Thai Basil Cultivation:

In warm tropical and subtropical climates basil is evergreen and will re-seed itself in the garden. However, because most varieties are frost tender, in cold regions basil is generally grown as a summer annual.

Basil loves full sun, but in very hot and dry regions some midday or afternoon shade would be beneficial. It thrives in fertile soils and requires lots of water, but drainage must be perfect. Allow the soil to dry out partially before watering again but don't wait until your plant is wilting. Also, try to water in the morning, as basil does not really enjoy going to bed with 'wet feet'.

If planted in good soil the plant should not require further feeding, but if grown in containers it may be fed occasionally with a balanced organic fertiliser. Beware of over feeding with fertiliser high in nitrogen - this may produce larger leaves, but can compromise the flavour.

When growing culinary basil, continually pinch off any developing flowers whenever you see them. If you allow the plant to start flowering, the leaves will become bitter, as the plant turns all its energy into producing seeds for the next season, and not into making new leaves.

Seed is sown in spring or early summer, and small plants can be planted out once all danger of frost is over. Seeds can be started indoors, under heat, about 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost. Basil is best sown into seedling trays or individual small pots, and most cultivars will take 8 to 14 days to germinate if the weather is warm. Seed must be planted extremely shallowly, or even simply placed on top of the soil and wetted in. If you pre-moisten to soil before sowing it will prevent seeds from being ‘washed around’. Keep the soil moist enough for germination to take place, but do not allow the soil to be soggy.

Growing basil from cuttings is easy, just cut approximately 10cm portions of the stem before the plant flowers; remove the leaves from the lower section of the stem and place in a small cup of water on a windowsill; change the water occasionally until roots form. After the roots have grown about 1cm in length plant the cutting into a small pot to grow on.

Basil can be harvested as required throughout the growing season. Handle the plant gently because the leaves are easily bruised. Cut stems will keep for about one week if kept in a container of water like a bouquet of flowers, and the water is changed every other day. You can also store basil wrapped in a damp paper towel in the refrigerator drawer for up to 4 or 5 days.

Lemon Basil  Lemon Basil Culinary Basil Varieties:

Generally, the perennial varieties tend to be more tolerant of cold weather. Annual varieties can reach up to 80cm tall, with a spread of 50cm, but the perennials will grow larger, to about 1 or 1.5m tall and 1m wide. 

Sweet Basil & Sweet Basil 'Genovese' (Ocimum basilicum 'Genovese') are annuals with very similar looks and are loved for their heady aroma and exceptional sweet and spicy flavour.

Basil 'Dark Opal' (Ocimum basilicum 'Purpurascens') is an annual which is grown and used in the same way as sweet basil. It is not greatly different in flavour, sharing its soft strength on the palate - very spicy with no bitter qualities. It is loved for its gorgeous purple leaves which look fabulous in salads and in the garden.

Basil 'Rubin' (Ocimum basilicum 'Red Rubin') is an annual with large, dark purple leaves with a similar flavour to sweet basil and the same uses.

Basil ‘Purple Ruffles’ (Ocimum basilicum 'Purple Ruffles') is an annual with lovely pink flowers and crinkled purple leaves which are rich and spicy with a slightly more anise-like flavour than that of Genovese Basil.

Basil ‘Ruffles Green and Purple’ (Ocimum basilicum 'Ruffles Green and Purple') is an annual with large, serrated leaves, giving it an interesting texture and colour for salads or garnishing.

Lemon Basil (Ocimum basilicum x citriodorum) is an annual which is similar to other basils but has a wonderful savoury lemon flavour and fragrance, which goes well with chicken, fish, vegetables, herb vinegars, salads, dressings and herbal teas; and is often added to potpourris.

Lime Basil (Ocimum basilicum X citriodorum) is an annual which is similar to lemon basil with a sweet and fragrant aroma and mild citrus taste. The lime aroma and flavour give an explosion of tangy fresh zing to sauces, dressings and desserts.

Cinnamon Basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Cinnamon') is an annual with slightly hairy olive-green leaves with purple veins and pale pink to purple flowers. The leaves have a spicy cinnamon and clove aroma which blends well with other sweet, spicy flavours.  It is great for stir-fried dishes, pies and meat dishes; as well as in chutneys and fruit salads.

Greek Columnar Basil (Ocimum basilicum var.) is a perennial which is often grown as an annual and is named for its unique growth habit +-1.5m tall and 1m wide; resulting in a stately columnar appearance. It has smaller leaves than its cousins and is one of the stronger-flavoured basils, but is good for stews and hearty dishes, in modest amounts.

Thai Basil 'Siam Queen' (Ocimum basilicum var thyrsiflorum 'Siam Queen') Thai Basil is a tender perennial, but is typically grown as an annual. There are many varieties of which are grown all over the world, but the most popularly cultivated is 'Siam Queen'. It has a spicy basil flavour, infused with liquorice and cinnamon. It retains its flavour well when cooked but is also consumed fresh like other basils.

Holy or Sacred Basil, Tulasi (Ocimum tenuiflorum syn. O. sanctum) is a perennial herb will grow between 60cm and 1.5m tall, with an equal spread. Two types of sacred basil are cultivated; a green-leaved and a purple-leaved. The leaves taste peppery, almost like a cross between ginger and mint.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

With proper care, basil can be relatively pest and disease free.  Although Basil has a reputation as an insect repellent, particularly for mosquitoes, it can be attacked by a variety of pests, including Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, slugs, aphids, spider mites, whiteflies, cutworms and soil nematodes. 

Caution:

Basil is not listed as poisonous to humans, cats or dogs.