Growing Basil

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For the first herb in the herb series I feel compelled to pick Basil.  It is easy to grow, packs a big punch, and generally is an approachable herb to both grow and use.  I have found however that most people do not have a clue as to how to grow basil and how to keep it up for a summer of use.  I cringe every time I hear someone say in May (or ever really) that their basil is already flowering, or that they were so excited to pick off one or two huge leaves from the bottom of the plant.  When you are growing herbs, it is always important to cut them so the plant is stronger from the harvest, not weaker.  With basil this is so easy to do and easy to mess up.

There are may varieties of basil, I have always stuck with the traditional sweet basil that is commonly found in Italian cooking.  The plant is fast growing, enjoys high heat and lots of water and sunlight.  Basil is also a bit finicky, if it starts to dry out the leaves will quickly start to wilt and droop (in the matter of a day or hours).  But don’t worry, it will respond quickly to a good watering.  If you don’t get a lot of sunlight, or notice the temperature dropping too sharply at night time you may want to change the location of your plant or bring it in for night time early in the season.  Basil is actually a tropical plant, so northern cold temperatures and shade are not going to result in much bounty.

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Believe it or not this top picture is my basil about a week after planting.  I put them outside and the wind and cold really wilted and damaged the plants.  I had to stake them up to keep them from drooping all the way over.  With careful watering, protection from the high winds, and sunlight they turned into the picture below in just 2 more weeks.

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Some ways to retain moisture without opening the door to fungus or mold (which basil can be prone to) are to put a layer of mulch around your plants and be sure to not over crowd the plants when you have several in a pot.  It’s also important to water at the base of the plant, don’t get the leaves all wet.  On a hot sunny day the water on basil leaves can actually damage the fragile leaves.

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When it comes to picking your basil for use, be sure to avoid picking the biggest yummiest looking leaves from the bottom of the plant.  Those leaves are the primary solar panels that are powering your plant.  If you pull them off you risk losing the entire plant, especially if it is young.  You always want to pick by pinching off from the top 1 to 2 inches of growth just above a split.  You will find that once you do this, you will get two big shoots out of the joint you picked above and essentially will double the growth.  When this grows up high enough you can do the same thing to this new growth…this is how you get a basil plant that is 1-2 feet high and bushy.

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My basil plant from last year at the end of the season

If your plants starts to flower on the top it is “going to seed” or “bolting”.  You want to stop this, as this is your plant getting ready to shut itself down and prepare for next year.  The rest of the leaves will get bitter tasting, and lose that magical sweet quality.  You need to get ahead of the flowering by pinching off the plant a few inches below where the flowering started.  The more you use basil the more energy it will put into making delicious leaves for you to use, which is what you want.

As I mentioned in the last post, make sure you fertilize your soil however you feel most comfortable to keep the soil in the pot nutrient rich.  Yellow and flavorless leaves are often a sign that you need more nitrogen in the soil, which you can replenish regularly with fertilizer.

Now that you have a beautiful and healthy basil plant, you can start putting it to work in the kitchen.  Basil is extremely versatile, you can add it to salad, smoothies, cocktails, sauces, pizza, fish, poultry, the list goes on and on.  You can dry it, freeze it, or make it into a pesto when you start to have too much.  I can’t wait to start sharing more recipes with basil over the summer.

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Check out some of my previous recipes that involve fresh basil:

Pestohttps://seasonsforcooking.com/2013/09/14/end-of-summer-pesto

Basil, Lemon, and Jalapeno Pestohttps://seasonsforcooking.com/2013/09/05/basil-lemon-and-jalapeno-pesto

Coconut, Strawberry, and Basil Smoothiehttps://seasonsforcooking.com/2014/01/04/coconut-strawberry-and-basil-smoothie

Mango and Mint Smoothiehttps://seasonsforcooking.com/2013/09/22/mango-mint-smoothie

Whole Trout Dinnerhttps://seasonsforcooking.com/2013/08/26/whole-trout-dinner

Spinach French Toast with Tomato Topping  – https://seasonsforcooking.com/2014/04/08/spinach-french-toast-with-tomato-topping

Light Spinach and Artichoke Diphttps://seasonsforcooking.com/2013/10/26/light-spinach-and-artichoke-dip

Spicy Spaghetti Sauce with Turkey Meatballshttps://seasonsforcooking.com/2013/10/11/spicy-spaghetti-sauce-with-turkey-meatballs

Meaty Lasagnahttps://seasonsforcooking.com/2013/09/18/meaty-lasagna

 Enjoy and Cook Well!

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Coconut, Strawberry and Basil Smoothie

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Today I was looking for a creamy smoothie with a different flavor profile from the norm.  I have a basil plant that is holding on for dear life by the front window, begging for sunlight in the middle of winter and unfortunately too close to the window to stay warm on these sub-zero days.  With the 5-6 living leaves that remain I wanted to make something to recall the days of summer when fresh herbs are robust.

To add creamy smoothness the combination of banana and coconut milk (from a can) are pretty great.  The coconut milk gives more thickness to the smoothie than almond milk or regular milk, and the coconut flavor in the finished product is perfect.  Of course this was blended in the Vitamix for optimal consistency.

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Ingredients:

1 Ripe Banana
1 cup of Red or Green Kale
5-6 large frozen Strawberries
5 small Fresh Basil Leaves
1/3 cup of lite Coconut Milk, canned.

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Directions:

Add ingredients to Vitamix blender in order provided and blend on high for 45 seconds.  Add more or less coconut milk as needed for desired consistency.  I didn’t put any ice in this as the frozen berries give a cool icy quality, but you can add ice if you like.

Stay healthy and Enjoy!

Mango Mint Smoothie

After my first fall morning run I wanted a satisfying and refreshing smoothie to continue the healthy start to my day.  The best part about a smoothie is that the combination possibilities are endless.  Today I used some fruits found in the fridge and fresh herbs from the balcony, the combo was everything I wanted and more.

2013-09-22 12.12.08Ingredients:

– 1 Kiwi, peeled and quartered

– 1 Mango, peeled and sliced

– 1 cup red seedless grapes

– Juice of 1 grapefruit

– 12 mint leaves

– 4 basil leaves

– 1 1/2 Tbsp chia seeds

– Soda water and Ice as needed for consistency

2013-09-22 12.05.57Directions:

Pt everything in the blender and blend until smooth.  Garnish with fresh mint leaves if desired.  Makes 3 smoothies, so share with a friend or two!

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End of Summer Pesto

My basil plant has officially decided to pack it up for the summer.  It is bolting despite my efforts to prune and fertilize and the leaves are not as vibrant as they used to be, so it’s time to make Pesto!  My mother was boasting about how she used her basil at home and made 31 cups of pesto.  I thought my basil plant on the balcony was pretty big…it made 2 1/4 cups of pesto.  Note to self, get a bigger balcony.

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I didn’t have any pine nuts at home, so I substituted pistachios, and I used my infused olive oil instead of regular olive oil for a little something special.

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Ingredients:

Now I used some very loose measurements…it’s sort of about feel.  I wanted to use terms like “a lot”, “enough” and “a little” instead of actual measurements, but people like my husband will go a little crazy and abandon the project if I do that…so here are some guidelines as to what I did.

– 2 cups of packed basil leaves

– 4 sprigs of curly parsley

– 3 cloves of garlic

-12 pistachios, shelled

-1/3 cup infused olive oil (see “Garlic Chicken with Zucchini Ribbons” post for directions)

– 1/3+ cup of grape seed oil

– salt to taste

– 1/4 cup fresh shaved Parmesan cheese (I go pretty light on the cheese and add it to dishes later, most recipes call for 1/2 cup)

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Directions:

Put everything in the blender and pulse to blend, add oils slowly until consistency is smooth but not too runny.

For the final batch I didn’t have enough basil, so I added mint leaves, rosemary, and sage to fill up the food processor.  It had a nice herb flavor that will likely pair well with chicken.

Use immediately or store for a few days in the refrigerator.  If you want to freeze the pesto, most websites recommend not adding the cheese until thawed for use.  My mom has always frozen it with the cheese mixed in without consequence, so I did the same.  A good secret however is to pour a layer of olive oil on top of the pesto to keep fresh in the freezer.  Use in up to 3 months is recommended.  Again we must live on the wild side in my family, I have used pesto that is a year old and it’s still perfect and fresh…cheese and all.

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Basil, Lemon, and Jalapeno Pesto

For our anniversary my husband and I enjoyed a nice dinner out at one of our favorite wine bars the night before, La Madia.  On our actual anniversary we decided to make a meal at home.  We got a nice bottle of champagne and I was going to plan a meal to compliment it, but he was dead set on having a hamburger for dinner.  I like a burger as much as the next girl, but it wasn’t exactly what I was in the mood for.  Instead, we drank beers and grilled out, typical.  While he made his burger I tried to get creative.  It started with making a pesto…

For the pesto I took a bunch of my overgrown basil and mint to use as the base.  I used primarily basil as it is threatening to bolt, but I’m really into mint so I had to use a bit of that to round it out.

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Ingredients:

-1 cup of basil

-1/3 cup of mint

-juice from 2 lemon wedges

-1/2 jalapeno, diced

-2 cloves garlic

-1/4 cup olive oil

Directions:

Add everything to the blender or food processor except the olive oil.  I would add this slowly so as to not make it too runny, may not take the full amount.  Mine came out a little juicy looking, but it had good flavor.

2013-09-04 19.23.12My husband put the pesto on his burgers with tomatoes, basil leaves, grilled onions, and peppers.  It looked pretty tasty, but I was looking for something a little lighter and fresher.

2013-09-04 19.46.07First I put the pretzel roll on the grill, cut side down.  After a minute I took it off to spread the pesto on the top and bottom and lined it with fresh mozzarella cheese.  To melt the cheese, I put the bread back on the grill, but turned the grill off so it’s hot enough for melting the cheese but not burn the outside of the bread.

Next I filled with tomatoes, fresh basil, a grilled onion, pepper, and slice of grilled zucchini.  So good!  We ate outside so the lighting in the picture for the final product is extremely poor and doesn’t do it justice, so you will have to use your imagination.