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Basil, Garlic and Tomato: The Culinary (And Healthy) Three Musketeers

basil garlic tomatoBasil, Garlic, and Tomatoes go wonderfully together in the kitchen. Countless dishes from many countries have been designed with these three ingredients in them, from pizzas to sauces, from bruschetta to pasta dishes and casseroles.

But the benefits of these three culinary musketeers are not limited to flavors alone. These three can offer significant health benefits, as well. It’s time to add these three delicious and beneficial foods to your own garden and kitchen.

Basil

Sweet Basil, the most popular culinary basil variety, is fairly easy to grow. You’ll just want to remember a few basic requirements. Basil needs anywhere from six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day and grows quite happily on kitchen windowsills, balconies and directly in the ground in a sunny location. Basil leaves are succulent and fast growing and require nearly constant moisture. In-ground plants need watered every four to seven days while container plants require more frequent watering. No herb likes to have soggy feet, though, so well-draining soil is a must. Basil grows all summer long, and cannot handle the cold, so plant directly in the ground after the last spring frost. Another option is to start seeds indoors three to four weeks before the last spring frost. This can help plants reach production strength sooner and extend the growing season. Container plants can be moved outside once the weather is warm in the spring if you would prefer or kept indoors all year round. While basil plants don’t necessarily need excessive fertilization, if plants are in nutrient poor soil, fertilizer can be provided occasionally at half the recommended amount for vegetables.

Basil is packed with chemicals, vitamin C and several minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron). It can help with stomach and intestinal issues, kidney conditions, fluid retention, and even head colds. It has been used as a treatment for worm infections, snakes and insect bites. Some people even use basil as part of a mix of herbs placed in their chicken’s nesting boxes to refresh the coop, boost hatching chicks and deter bacteria.

Harvesting and cooking with basil is fairly straight-forward. Individual leaves can be picked or entire sprigs cut off just above where two leaves are present. If pruned this way, the bush will quickly sprout new growth and develop into a nice bush. The leaves can be washed and combined with all manner of salads, soups, cooked dishes, vinegars and dressings. “Sweet (or Italian) basil is used in pesto and compliments the flavor of tomatoes. . . . Whichever basil you grow, taste the fresh leaves and use your imagination to create flavored vinegars, salads, and main dishes,” says Jeff Schalau, associate agent of the Agriculture & Natural Resources of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. Basil pesto is a favorite made from olive oil, parmesan cheese, pine nuts or walnuts, garlic, black pepper, and of course, plenty of fresh basil leaves!

Garlic

Garlic is fairly easy to grow, but does require some planning. The best time to plant the individual cloves is in the fall after the first frost. However, cloves can be planted later in the winter after the soil has thawed, as well. These bulbs won’t grow as big as the fall planted ones, but they should still produce quality garlic. In a sunny location, loosen the soil and add in some mature compost. Sink individual cloves down four to six inches, six to eight inches apart, and cover them over with three to five inches of organic mulch (hay, shredded leaves). The plants will start growing come spring. When about one-third of the plant’s leaves have turned pale and withered, pull them up gently (use a digging fork or trowel if the plants are stubborn). Treat these new bulbs with care to avoid any excessive bruising and lay them out to dry in a shaded place where the rain can’t reach them. After about a week or two, you can clip off the leaves or braid them together and hang them up. Garlic stored in a basement or garage where the temperatures hover between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit will keep for at least four months and, depending on variety, even as long as eight months.

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While garlic’s most obvious use is in the kitchen, its worth is not limited solely to its culinary delights. Garlic has allicin as well as some sulfer-containing compounds in it. These compounds are thought to help with heart disease. Garlic has also been touted as a treatment for the common cold and fungal infections. It can act as a blood thinner and slows the development of atherosclerosis. Research and numerous studies have backed these claims up. The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that, “Garlic may strengthen the immune system, helping the body fight diseases such as cancer.” There are a variety of ways to prepare and take garlic, but please check with your healthcare professional prior to beginning any high dosages of garlic as drug interactions can occur. For example, garlic can make birth control pills less effective.

Barbara Pleasant, an organic gardening and real food expert writes, “Without a doubt, garlic works flavor miracles when added to food. The pungency of raw garlic varies depending on the variety, and all types of garlic mellow when cooked.” Garlic can be minced and added to soups, stews, sauces and stir-fries. Frying in a little oil prior to adding it to any number of dishes is a great way to make use of this wonderful plant, and adds a heady fragrance to the kitchen. Garlic can be sliced, dried and then ground into garlic powder. It can even be cooked whole and eaten with a little salt or mashed and spread on toast. Curled garlic scapes appear on some types of garlic in early summer and these can be “eaten fresh, or blanched and frozen,” Pleasant writes.

Tomatoes

When it comes to growing tomatoes, sometimes it seems like it’s a matter of luck, but success can be seen by keeping a few things in mind. While you can plant seeds directly into the soil, most people start their seeds indoors five to six weeks before the last spring frost, or they purchase their stock from a nursery. Starting from seed gives you more variety, but the convenience of a nursery is hard to beat. You’ll want to plant your tomatoes in a sunny location (preferably at least 8 hours of sunlight a day) in well-draining soil. Most tomatoes are grown in the ground, but lately with the proliferation of urban gardening, container options for tomatoes are becoming available. Just be sure to purchase a large-enough container. Tomatoes prefer plenty of organic matter, so add a good amount of compost at planting to your soil. You can also mulch your tomatoes throughout the growing season. Water them regularly while allowing the soil time to dry somewhat between watering. Tomatoes need a steady supply of water, but they don’t like soggy feet, nor can they handle becoming dry. So water often, but not constantly. Pick tomatoes when they are uniform in color and still firm. (Green tomatoes can be ripened inside on the countertop out of direct sunlight if it’s late in the season and there isn’t enough warmth and sunlight to ripen them properly on the vine.)

Tomatoes are not customarily thought of as medicinal, but they offer quite a number of health benefits. They’re an excellent source of folic acid, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, potassium, carotenoids and bioflavonoids. Tomatoes are little powerhouses of anti-inflammatory properties and are thought to help with certain cancers, cardiovascular diseases, asthma and chronic lung disease. Dr. Leo Galland shares that “the absorption of carotenoids and flavonoids from tomatoes is greater from cooked tomatoes than fresh tomatoes, since cooking breaks down the tomato cell matrix and makes the carotenoids more available.” Lycopene is one of the major carotenoids that have inflammatory properties. To get the greatest benefits, combine your cooked tomatoes with a healthy fat, like olive or avocado oil, as this helps increase your body’s abilities to absorb lycopene.

You can harness the powers of these red powerhouses in a number of ways. Tomatoes are delicious eaten fresh from the garden. They make a bright and colorful edition to Caesar salads and can be diced and placed in tacos, or sliced and placed on subs and sandwiches. Cooked tomatoes are a welcome edition in soups and many baked pasta dishes. You can fry them, grill them, sauté them, and stir fry them. Additionally, tomatoes can be made into salsa, pasta sauces and pastes and ketchup. There is practically no end to the choices you have with this acidic fruit.

As you prepare for the coming spring, consider adding these three culinary musketeers, basil, garlic, and tomato, to your own garden. All three can be grown successfully in the ground or in containers. Come late summer, these three meld perfectly together into any number of delicious salads, soups, and baked dishes. There’s nothing like creating and enjoying delectable dishes packed with health benefits from your own garden. Enjoy!

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