It's the end of summer. The kids head back to school, the nights get the first hint of autumn, and the basil keeps arriving by the truckload. How do you handle the inevitable surplus?
Pete Madsen, owner of Pete's Herbs in Charleston, South Carolina, feels the answer is simple. "Think pesto for Christmas. Think pesto for Valentine's Day. It's the summer's abundance that makes winter bearable."
Besides squirreling away jars of pesto in every nook and cranny of the kitchen, Pete suggests trading fresh basil for meals at local Italian restaurants. "Chefs are always looking for a source of good fresh herbs. It's a win-win situation for everyone."
Pete goes on to describe the importance of proper post-harvesting techniques. "Basil really needs to be cool and dry to last long. Its leaves bruise easily, so it has to be treated carefully. I like the miniature kinds, because their stems are tender and it's easy to use the whole plant. When basil gets too big, the stems can get woody and less useful." Pete has also found that plants usually grow best if he mows them down in late summer, waters and fertilizes them heavily, and then sits back to watch. "A late flush of basil is wonderful," he says. "It will provide enough of a harvest to really stock up for winter."
Randy Harelson, from The Gourd Garden in Seagrove Beach, Florida, has a similar sentiment. "It's really hard to imagine having too much basil. If you get tired of the typical 'Genovese' basil, try a different type such as Thai or 'Cinnamon Basil.' I usually plant about six different kinds so there is always one that's grabbing my attention." Mixing the different selections in a border can also create a striking accent. 'African Blue' and holy basil are two excellent kinds that work well as ornamentals.
The only real question for Randy is what to do when frost threatens the plants. Because the herb is so cold sensitive, it's important to pay attention to the weather forecast and pick all of the basil before it gets burned by the frost. You'll need to have a plan for dealing with this sudden abundance. "I'm not a fan of drying basil, because it quickly loses its vigor," he says.
However, if processed properly, basil can retain all of its flavor. Randy's preferred method is to cut and grind the basil with some olive oil and then pour the mixture into ice-cube trays. He adds a dash of oil to the top of the trays before freezing the harvest. "The extra bit of oil on top really seals in the flavor and prevents any of the basil from getting freezer burn." Once the cubes are solid, Randy stores them in a freezer bag and adds them to the savory dishes he cooks over the winter.
"There's really nothing that won't benefit from a little dash of homegrown basil," he says, "especially when the winter days seem so short and dark. I can make pesto from the cubes simply by adding crushed garlic and toasted pine nuts."
Regardless of what you do with all your basil, the answer is clear: You can never have too much.
For fresh new basil recipes see "From Our Kitchen" on page 156 of the September 2003 issue of Southern Living.
"Abundant Basil" is from the September 2003 issue of Southern Living.