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Basil 101: Growing, Cooking And Preserving This Delicious Plant

basilI had only cooked with the dried version of basil before I got married, but every new home needs to have its own indoor plants, right? Little potted herbs lined the shelves at our local grocery store and I knew I just had to have one. What better one to start with than a basil plant?

I chose sweet basil, the most common culinary variety and the only kind available at the store. Since then, I’ve learned that there are a number of other varieties, including purple basil, lemon and lime basil, Thai basil, and even cinnamon flavored kinds.

Basil’s Health Benefits

Basil has rich nuances of flavor and is a welcome addition to many soups, salads, vinegars and main dishes. Just recently, I made a lemon basil rub for steak and it was delicious. In addition to its culinary uses, basil has many health benefits. Housed within the plant’s fibers are a number of chemicals, vitamins (including vitamin C) and minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron) that can help with a variety of stomach and intestinal issues. It has been used to help with stomach spasms, loss of appetite, intestinal gas, kidney conditions, fluid retention, head colds, warts, worm infections and even as a treatment for snake and insect bites.

Convinced that basil was a perfect choice, I picked up a cute pot with a single basil plant in it. Six shiny leaves poked out from the stem. In a word, it was adorable. I instantly felt a connection with the little plant and was excited about seeing it spring up into a delicious, hearty bush.

Growing Basil . . . and What Not to Do

While Basil can be grown outdoors in the ground, it also can prosper in containers. I decided to give my little basil plant some time to recover from the stress of bringing it home before I moved it to its next pot. Growers need to keep a few basic requirements in mind — simple requirements that I learned about the hard way. Basil plants need between six and eight hours of direct sunlight every day, a ready supply of moisture, and a fairly warm environment. (If you grow these plants indoors during the winter, avoid drafts).

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For a little while, my basil seemed to be holding its own, though it didn’t show any growth. I optimistically assumed it was just a slow growing plant or stressed from being brought home from the store. One weekend, I had to be away from home, and I placed the tiny pot by the balcony doors where it would receive plenty of sunlight during my absence. But outdoor temperatures were still chilly and the draft off of the doors hit my plant hard. By the time I returned home, the basil had wilted. Its leaves were hanging limply and there was a dead brown color creeping up around the edges. Hoping that it wasn’t too late, I watered my plant and effectually killed the poor thing. I was crestfallen.

I brought another basil plant home and proceeded to kill that one in a much slower fashion (all of which was accidental, I assure you). It took me three tries to learn the basics of nurturing this relatively easy-to-care-for herb, but this past summer, I finally succeeded and had a huge basil bush prospering in a large pot on my balcony. I was ecstatic and beamed with pride any time someone noticed its health and vigor!

Harvesting and Preserving Basil

basil garlic tomatoAs basil grows, you can harvest individual leaves or entire sprigs. I cut the stems just above two leaves and new growth continued to develop rapidly. When the bush started to produce flowers, I pinched them off to stop the bush from going to seed, which causes the leaves to turn bitter.

I began to realize that I had to figure out what to do with the abundance of succulent leaves. I had assumed I would use fresh basil solely for cooking, picking a few leaves whenever I needed them, but now I was inundated with far more than I could use. My kitchen was starting to smell like an Italian restaurant! I began giving basil sprigs away and struggled in vain to stay on top of harvesting and storing the rest.

To preserve basil, you can dry it and freeze it, or process it with olive oil into a pesto and freeze that. I took my basil leaves and blended them with enough olive oil to form a paste. Using a cookie scoop, I put “basil cookies” onto a baking sheet and popped them into the freezer. Once solid, I stored the cookies in a freezer bag and any time I needed seasoning for a dish, I’d plop a “basil cookie” into the pot and have delicious fresh basil flavor.

As I gear up for a new growing season this year, I’m excited about growing basil again. Now that I know what I’m doing and can ensure that my plants have plenty of water, well-draining soil, and full sunlight, I’m ready to try more than one variety this year. I hope you can join me and have many chances to enjoy the culinary joys of this delectable herb!

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