Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Herb of the Week - Pesto Basil

Many people, even those new to herbs can recognize a basil plant.  In fact that is why I used it in my logo when I redesigned my labeling during  2013.

However, choosing which basil to grow in your garden is sometimes more daunting than one would realize.  Just go to any sizable garden center and they generally have more than one kind of basil, and if you look in a seed catalog your are likely to find dozens. Seeds of Change has 11 varieties of basil available.  So how do you choose?
I have done posts on some basils in the past.  Most specifically Cinnamon BasilLemon Basil and Holy Basil.  I have also waxed poetic about purple basil, although I have never done it as an herb of the week...
Cinnamon Basil

Today I want to focus on Pesto or Italian Dinner Basils, so for the
                        Herb of the Week I choose Pesto Basils.

Basil's scientific name is Ocimum basilicum. The three Basil varieties that I recommend for Pesto are all of this species, but are slightly different varieties.

Basil Genovese

The first Pesto Basil I recommend to grow is Basil 'Genovese.'  This one is very popular and you can find the variety in most garden centers as a seedling or you can plant it from seed. Basil 'Genovese', sometimes just labeled Sweet Basil, is one of the most popular herb plants. It is the perfect plant for authentic Italian basil flavor and aroma. 

Genovese Basil is important to Italian cuisine and traditionally was a symbol of love throughout Italy. When women were preparing for courtship, many would place a potted Genovese outside of their door to signal suitors that they were receptive to their calls.

A hugely popular culinary herb, the tall and relatively slow-to-bolt stems on this basil plant bare dark green leaves about 3" long.  The e
dible, aromatic foliage yields abundant leaves with authentic Italian basil flavor that is perfect in a pesto sauce. Easy to grow in containers or outdoors, this classic basil has mildly spicy flavor and sweet fragrance fantastic for seasonings, salads, garnishes and pesto. Basil is also a fantastic companion plant and natural pest repellent.

It can grow up to 24 inches in height and takes about 68 days to reach maturity, but since you are pinching the tops to make it bushier starting as soon as it has 5 leaves, you can begin eating it long before the plant reaches maurity.

Basil Napoletano

Next we have a basil often called Lettuce Leaf Basil or Basil Napoletano.  Napoletano has crinkled leaves that can reach up to 5" long. The large mild-flavored leaves are delicious when used to wrap fish or chicken, on tomato and mozzarella sandwiches, or added to cold pasta dishes. Plants are slow to bolt, allowing a longer harvest period, and will get as tall as 24". Grow plants in pots on a sunny south-facing windowsill indoors our outside where they get plenty of sun.  Pinch back to keep them more compact and to encourage more leaf production.

Napoletano has fast germination.  If you plant it outside after the soil has warmed, you can see sprouts in 5 to 7 days.  You should wait until 1 to 2 weeks after average last frost, and when nighttime temperatures are warm. Basil is very sensitive to frost.  If you want to start it inside you need to do so 6 to 8 weeks before planting outside or around the beginning of April.  Don't plant outdoors until your nighttime temps are above 50 degrees.

Plant your Basil Napoletano seeds in groups of 4 spaced about 6 to 12 inches.  Thin the plants when they reach 2 inches in height so there is one plant every 6 to 10 inches.

Basil Pesto Perpetuo

Finally I have a basil I just recently fell in love with, Basil, Pesto Perpetuo.  It is a variegated basil that does not flower, so it is a serious hybrid basil.  You can get the plants (only) from Territorial Seed Company, if you order by May 1. The reason I love this plant is not because it makes great pesto, but because it is variegated.  I love a variegated plant and this one is also culinary which makes it special.  However, it is a hybrid that produces no seed, so  it will only be around as long as people buy it and its hybrid production is continued.

Known as Ocimum basilicum citriodorum,  Basil Pesto Perpetuo is a superb culinary plant, but its light lime green leaves with a thin line of  cream variegation on the leaf margin makes it an eye-catching gem. Mixed in with other Basil plants it will be striking.  A columnar plants it can grow up to 48 inches tall, so keep it clipped back. the beauty and flavor of this basil will earn it a prominent place in your herb garden. You grow it from plants you acquire from the breeder.

Set starter plants of this patented basil in the ground after last spring frost date. Plants are very sensitive to frost. Pesto Perpetuo is best grown in moderately rich, humusy soil with medium moisture and good drainage.  As with all basil plants it needs full sun. They thrive in warm, sunny, sheltered sites and do have some tolerance for light afternoon shade. Consistent and regular moisture throughout the growing season is required. Pinch out growing tips to encourage bushy growth. 

For culinary purposes, leaves are used either fresh or dried to flavor a variety of food preparations, including not only classic pesto sauce, but also vegetable dishes, meat dishes, stews, soups and marinades. Fresh variegated leaves are attractive as garnishes. Fresh leaves may also be frozen for later use. Dried leaves are often used as an ingredient in potpourris. 

Harvesting and Using

Whichever of the three basils you plant,  harvesting is about the same. Basil should be harvested before the plant flowers or to keep the plant from flowering. The leaves have more flavor when harvested in the morning. The young, top leaves taste the best, and should be used fresh; the older leaves may be used for vinegar and pesto. Cut a few stems but never more than 1/3 of the plant. Wash stems, gently shake dry, and strip the leaves off the stem. If there is any chance of temperature dropping to 32° F, harvest crop immediately; basil is very frost sensitive.

As with most varieties of basil, they love the sun and cannot tolerate cold. If you are keeping it indoors to extend its growing season, make sure it gets lots of light and adequate, but not excessive water. Pinch the flowering tops down to the first set of leaves, or first node, to prolong its usefulness in the kitchen.

Pesto Recipe

I posted a traditional pesto recipe along with preservation instructions for freezing it in a previous post in August 2010.  However I will share with you here another favorite pesto recipe.

Fresh Basil Pesto 
Mаkеѕ аbοut 2 cups

2 1/2 cups packed fresh basil
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons freshly grated Romano cheese
2-3 tablespoons butter, softened

Wash the basil in сοld water, and dry with paper towels. Place the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and salt in the bowl of a food processor, and process until smooth, scraping down the bowl once. Place the mixture into a bowl, and fold in the grated cheeses and butter by hand until thoroughly collective.

It is now ready to serve as a topping on fresh vegetables, as a pottage on cooked chicken or pork or as a sauce on pasta.  If using over pasta, thin the purée with some of the cooking liquid before you toss with the pasta.

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