Newest Review: ... be planted outside from June. The leaves can be collected from about July until September. Basil is an annual. Why grow it? ***********... more
Not at all Fawlty, just Basil
Member Name: Stewwydablue
Advantages: Transforms meals
Disadvantages: Needs a good warm summer, not something we always get
If you're into cooking your own food, and don't mind the odd bit of gardening, then basil is the perfect plant. It's one of those foods that tastes so much better when you've picked it only a minute or two before eating it, and can still feel the warmth of the sun on its leaves. There's a few "cheats" to growing basil which I'll tell you about below.
There's a few different ways to approach this - the purists can try growing from seed, the lazy can buy an already grown plant from a garden centre and the thrifty can propagate from cuttings. If you're growing from seed, the seeds need warmth and moisture so it's best to start them off indoors (on a south facing window sill or green house, but don't let them dry out or the seeds won't germinate). Scatter the seeds onto pre-watered compost then sit back for about three weeks and let nature do its thing. When the seedlings have a set of true leaves, they can be pricked out and moved into larger pots, or if it's warm enough (don't try this until late May or June - basil won't tolerate any frost) they can be planted straight outside into a sunny position with rich moist soil.
If you've bought a plant from a garden centre - here comes the bad news. You've probably just paid two or three times the amount for at least half the number of plants that you would get in a pot from the fruit and veg aisles in most supermarkets. The best way, in my opinion, to get the most from your basil plants is to buy one of those supermarket pots, take it home and then slowly tease the whole lot out of its pot. Then, as carefully as you can so as not to destroy the roots, separate the mass of overcrowded plants into as many single plants as you can which can then be re-potted into their own pots. The problem with supermarket bought basil in pots is that the growers cram as many plants in as possible and force the growing conditions, which means that the pot you bought to make some meatballs with for tea next Tuesday probably won't last over the weekend. Most of the big supermarkets sell basil in this way, and you can pick up a pot from between 75p to £1-odd.
To make these supermarket basil plants stretch even further, I use some of them for cuttings. This is dead easy and only takes about five minutes of work to turn a single plant into three or four more. Using a very sharp knife, cut the stalk of a plant into roughly four inch long pieces, making the cut just below the "join" where leaves grow from. Strip off the leaves from the bottom two inches of the cutting, then place into a jar of water. Change the water every three or four days to stop it going mouldy and after about a fortnight you should see roots starting to form at the bottom of the cuttings. You don't need to use root hormone powder for this as basil is desperate to reproduce in this way, so it roots very easily in nothing more than water. When the roots are at least an inch long, the individual cuttings can be potted up as plants in their own right and will carry on growing so long as you feed them and give them plenty of warmth and sunshine.
When I've used the above method for basil cuttings in the past, I normally have at least an 80% success rate. I think it's amazing how far you eek out the productivity of just one pot of basil bought for around £1 - I more than get my money's worth and it would cost a small fortune to buy the equivalent amount of plants from a garden centre.
The conditions that basil needs to grow are very similar to those for tomatoes - warmth, light and rich, moist soil so that's why the two go hand in hand in the garden, not just in the kitchen. Keep the soil moist, but not water logged as they can be greedy feeders and will droop with too much water in their leaves. If you're not sure how often to water them, wait until the plant's leaves look like they're starting to shrivel and wilt through dryness then water. Leave about three to four inches gap between any plants that you plant out, whether that be in pots or directly into the soil.
Basil is what's known as an annual plant and will die off when the night time temperature drops, usually around September. You can prolong the life of the plants by an extra month or two by bringing them under cover.
PESTS AND DISEASES COMMON TO BASIL
Most pests don't like basil as the leaves contain chemicals that are mildly repellent to insects. That said though, you might find the odd green fly hiding amongst the leaves - pick them off by hand rather than ruining your food crop with pesticide sprays. If you've got more than the odd one or two greenfly, wipe them off with a damp cloth or spray a soapy solution on them - they don't like this and will fall off.
Basil can also be susceptible to grey mould and downy mildew. Grey mould looks as its name suggests, and is caused by too much humidity and lack of air movement - so prevent this by not over watering and don't overcrowd the plants. If you see grey mould, take off all infected parts and destroy them. Don't put infected plant parts into your compost bin as it will harbour the fungus spores and spread. If you have downy mildew, prevent and treat in the same way as for grey mould. Downy mildew can be spotted by a greyish "down" forming on the leaves. Another good prevention method is not to let the leaves get splashed when watering the basil plants, try and water directly onto the soil instead.
Some of the most common types of basil that I'm aware of include sweet, Greek, Genovese, lemon, Thai, lime, purple ruffles and red basil. These are available as both seeds and ready grown plants in the UK. When you buy a basil plant from a supermarket, it's most likely to be either sweet basil or Genovese. Jamie Oliver uses Greek basil quite often on his cookery programmes - it looks a bit like a small sage bush and not like the succulent leafy spindly plants of Genovese or sweet basil that most of us are more familiar with.
There are many recipes that use basil, but I recommend you try it in it's simplest form - just wrap a basil leaf around a strawberry and enjoy. Nothing more, nothing less and none of that fancy balsamic vinegar stuff that aspiring foodies add to everything. The two tastes go together so well. Another very simple way of using basil is to rip up the leaves and add to small cubes of feta cheese and chopped tomatoes as a salad - again the flavours work so well together. It's the culinary equivalent of the three tenors - harmonious and very Mediterranean.
Then of course, there's pesto, or "that snot that daddy puts on his pizzas" as my girls would say. There are a million and one uses for pesto, and it freezes very well so it doesn't matter if you have a glut of basil in September - make up a load of pesto and it will last for months in the freezer.
Here's how I make mine:
Weigh the amount of basil leaves, then weigh out a third of that weight in pine nuts and a third of the weight in parmesan cheese. (You can use other hard cheeses like pecorino). Grind and mash the leaves up in a pestle and mortar. I haven't got one of these as a) alchemy is soooo middle ages man, and b) have you seen how much these things cost?! Instead of a pestle and mortar, I use the rounded end of a plastic rolling pin in a ceramic mixing bowl and this does the job just fine. The smell that gets released during this is very strong but very satisfying and will make your mouth water. It's a double whammy of a smell, you get the light sweetness first of the uncrushed leaves then when the grinding starts, the pungent heaviness which clears out the nasal passage like menthol does (not surprising as basil and mint are related). Put the mashed up leaves to one side, then add the pine nuts to the bowl and do the same. Both the leaves and the nuts will turn into a mushy mess with both slime and tiny bits of the original material left in them. I leave these little bits for texture.
Lastly, I add the parmesan cheese, which I grate very finely with a nutmeg grater. It's fiddly and a bit smelly, but well worth the effort. If I'm putting the pesto into jars, I'll stir in a tablespoon of olive oil into each jar when full and then add a pinch of sea salt for its preservative qualities - but not too much salt as the cheese can be salty. If I'm freezing the pesto in bags, I judge the amount depending on the size of the container. Some people add garlic to the mix, or use cashew nuts instead of pine nuts. Some people leave out the basil entirely and use nettles and wild garlic leaves. An opened jar lasts just over a week in the fridge. There's also a school of thought that suggests not to put the cheese in before freezing, but I do and can't say that the end result is affected.
Basil can be stored by either freezing it or drying it. I've tried both methods, and get the better taste results from frozen basil. Dried basil loses its taste and colour, whereas frozen basil retains a vivid green colour and doesn't lose too much flavour. Whether dried, frozen or fresh, basil loses its taste strength when over cooked so add it right at the end when cooking something like a Bolognese sauce. To freeze, I chop up the basil and stuff into ice cube trays with a blob of olive oil. These cubes get added to the pan near the end of cooking, and I know they're cooked when the oil has melted.
Basil oil can be used for aromatherapy, but I have no idea how to extract the oil in a useful amount in the home kitchen - any help dooyooers?
Basil is a good source of vitamin k, iron, manganese and vitamin A. It also has antioxidant, antiviral and antimicrobial properties. Also, please don't be offended by the national stereotyping, but when was the last time you saw an unhealthy looking Italian? Exactly, I rest my case, basil is good for you (I said unhealthy, not untrustworthy, so Silvio Berlusconi doesn't count!).
Asda currently sell small pots of growing basil for 76p, and it's available in Aldi for a similar price too. A pot from a garden centre will set you back typically at least £2 (and you won't get half as much as the supermarket versions) and I've seen packs of seeds in Lidl as part of a buy two packs for 50p offer.
I'd recommend trying to grow some basil for those who enjoy cooking meals from scratch; it's a very tasty plant that mainly just needs warmth so it's also a good way of connecting to the seasons as it's got the taste of summer all over it. Five out of five stars, thanks for reading.
Summary: Try growing some, it's ace!