Back to Basil

Back to Basil

Whether you pronounce it "bayzul" (rhymes with nasal) or baaazul (as in Rathbone), basil is undergoing a renewed life. More and more people are finding a place for one or more varieties of this herb in their gardens. You can grow sweet basil, the kind usually found in the grocery store, or varieties with flavor accents ranging from lemon to licorice.

Gardening cooks from Tuscany to Thailand have long enjoyed basil's basic flavor--slightly peppery with a whisper of clove--but it's the other, more subtle flavors that will make you wish summer was year-round and the nearest fresh basil as close as your garden.

You won't experience basil's full impact using the dried stuff from the spice section of your grocery store--it just can't compare with the taste and aroma of fresh basil. If you treasure your taste buds, go now to your neighborhood nursery and buy some plants or seeds for your garden.

Basil loves a moderately rich soil and plenty of sun and water, but other than that, it's not demanding. It can be container grown outside or inside, as long as you give it plenty of light. As with most herbs, the benefits outweigh the work involved. Even just brushing against a plant in the garden and breathing in that delicious scent is reward enough for growing it.

Once you start using fresh basil, you'll never turn back. It's a excellent accent for chicken, fish, pork, rice, tomatoes, cheese, eggs, and mild vegetables such as carrots and zucchini.

Baking fish? Press fresh basil leaves onto both sides, drizzle with lemon juice, a little butter, pepper to taste and bake until the fish flakes easily with a fork (about 7-8 minutes for each inch of thickness). Uncomplicated, but the flavor of the basil permeates the fish, and the result is heavenly.

Tired of the same old salad? Tear up some basil along with the lettuce. You'll need less dressing, so you save a little on calories and gain a lot on taste.

Tomatoes taking over? Slice one, sprinkle it with chopped basil, cover with cheese and toast--a delicious side dish or snack anytime.

Part of basil's popularity is connected to America's present passion for a simple, irresistible mixture called pesto. This is no new culinary kid, though. The Roman poet Virgil recorded a pesto recipe two thousand years ago. Delicious over chicken, tossed with cooked shrimp, or served simply over pasta, the mere memory of a meal of pesto is almost enough to tide you through those last winter months when your supply's run out.

Basic Pesto

3 cups fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup shelled walnuts
1/2 cup pine nuts*
1 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

*A note on pine nuts: they're available at local health food stores, or you can omit them and use 1 cup of walnuts. Virgil won't mind.

First, chop the basil, garlic and nuts until fine, then stir in the oil. Add the cheese, salt and pepper and mix well.

To serve it, toss with hot pasta or serve over chicken breasts. It makes a terrific appetizer when spread over toasted bread or even used as a dip.

This recipe makes about 2 cups of pesto, enough for 2 pounds of pasta or 8 chicken breasts, and has about 400 calories per serving.

Pesto freezes well, and will keep for several months. Raw garlic can turn bitter when frozen, so add it after the pesto thaws. Or you can preserve your pesto in a more traditional way; for centuries, Italians have stored pesto in olive oil. Simply pack pesto, minus the cheese, in a jar, cover with oil and close tightly. Drain the extra oil and add cheese before serving.

Growing your own basil makes it easy to stockpile for use in winter soups and stews. The best way to store it is freezing (try chopping it and freezing in ice cube trays) Basil will keep frozen for about six months.

You've still got some left? Basil is wonderful as a garnish--top your next plate of pasta with a sprig. You can even use the blooms--they're edible, too. It's amazing the finished look this kind of garnish gives your dish, and your family or guests will appreciate the effort to make the meal more special. Only you will know how easy it was.

About the Author cooking columnist Leigh Abernathy has been an avid gardener for over 10 years and has been writing about eating what she grows for over five. Her articles have served as the inspiration for everything from family activities to half-a-dozen junior high science fair projects and as research for a masters candidate's thesis. When not playing in her gardens or kitchen, she's working on her cookbook or coaching judo at a local college.

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