Ahhh, basil, my very favorite herb. I admit, it has only been in the past seven or eight years that I have begun to grow fresh herbs on a regular basis. I have oregano and chives that return every year and rosemary that keeps growing all winter. But basil, well, it is a little more work, but oh so worth it.
I started a few years back by buying a $1.00 pack of basil seeds. I planted them in a rather large pot (I live in zone 8a so they are annuals here) and, when they started sprouting, I was so happy. The pot was soon full of small sprouts and I knew they would need to be thinned if I wanted healthy plants. However, I have a slight problem with wasting things. I just couldn’t bring myself to throw away the plants that I pulled out, so I replanted them in every flower pot I could find. Then I put all the pots on my garden cart so that I could move them around as needed and water them easily. Everyone that came to visit got a basil plant as a gift. When cold weather came, I still had a lot of basil plants, so I just let them bloom and go to seed. The next spring, I harvested and replanted the seeds and had even more basil. That fall I decided not to let all of it go to seed and harvested a lot of it for the freezer. I found that basil is very easy to freeze and reuse. After being frozen, basil does not do well in fresh things like salads or bruschetta, as it is limp when it thaws, but is great for cooking. Just add it to your recipe straight from the freezer.
To freeze my basil, I washed the whole basil leaves and let them dry, then spread them out on a cookie sheet and put them in the freezer. Once they were frozen, I just put them in a freezer bag to store. I then broke them up a bit inside the bag, and they were perfect to use in soups, stews, or (my favorite) homemade spaghetti sauce. No chopping was needed! I later read that you should blanch them before freezing, but it really worked just fine to freeze them straight off the plant. Last fall I was really busy and didn’t get to freeze any of my basil, so this winter I had to buy basil in the grocery store. Wow, was that an eye-opener! It is almost $3.00 for two small sprigs of fresh basil, which is really not enough for a whole recipe of anything (I like lots of basil). That will not happen again. From now on, I will make sure I have basil in my freezer. There are some recipes that use dried basil and, I admit, I use is sometimes too, but there is just no substitution for the taste of fresh basil in a recipe. Just add it in the last ten minutes of cooking time so it retains most of it flavor, and you will be surprised how fresh it makes your food taste.
This year I have decided to plant my basil at different times. The plan is to have basil growing fresh all year round (I will bring it inside in the winter), allow some to go to seed (for continuous plantings) and have enough to freeze for recipes. About 3 weeks ago, I went ahead and started a pot of basil indoors in a well lighted window and already have sprouts. I am hoping to never again have to buy basil in the grocery store.
To harvest my basil seeds, I let them form and dry on the plant. They dry nicely after the plant dies in the winter. Here are what the seed pods look like on a stem.
After they are dried, I take all the seed pods off the stem. When I am ready to plant, I rub the seed pods between my fingers to make sure the seed pods are open enough to let the seeds out. I don’t try to separate the seeds and pods, I just sprinkle all of it over my prepared soil and cover with another thin layer of soil. Then I keep the soil moist until they sprout. The seeds are quite small as you can see in this picture.
Once the plants are between one and two inches tall, I thin them to a about two inches apart (and of course replant the plants I pull up). Then just water occasionally.
Next time, I will share my recipe for Homemade Lentil and Vegetable Soup, made with fresh basil. It is great on a cold winter’s evening…it just warms you all the way through.
What is your favorite herb and what do you like to use it in?