Monday, July 2, 2012

Masterclass... the detail BASIL

Growing, Harvesting, Using and Storing 

BASIL The King of Herbs

Thai, Lemon, Greek, Sweet, Napolitano, Red Ruben to name just a few. We have all bought them at supermarkets and mercilessly slaughtered them on the kitchen windowsill and sworn never again... until the next time we need some for a recipe. So this time we buy cut leaves for at least £1 to use half and abandon the rest to the moldy cavern aka the bottom of the fridge.
I'd be lying if I said growing basil was easy, it is a tricksy little plant, and won't be ignored. It may take a couple of attempts to get it right in your kitchen. But you will be rewarded with tasty crops for cooking or my favourite, leaving the leaves whole in salads for surprising bursts of flavour

If we take supermarket basil as a variety, there is cut and come again (which you grow yourself) or there is one crop basil (which you buy from the supermarket). With the supermarket kind, harvest at will, the pot is used up and you buy another. With the cut and come again variety, and gentle harvesting, your plants will re-generate and keep growing, and offer you fresh leaves time and again.

So, how do you grow basil?
There are hundreds of articles and blogs out there explaining how to grow basil, I don't want to re-invent the wheel so just a couple of tips. All varieties have very similar needs.
Aluminium Herb Trough in Anthracite
1. Germinating basil seeds is a tricky business but you can use a good quality propagator and a warm dark place such as an airing cupboard.
2. Once you have baby plants (home grown or bought!), they need plenty of sunshine, but not necessarily the hottest window you can find, as this will often 
frazzle your plant. In the UK, it is safer indoors unless you have a very warm sheltered outside spot.
2. Out of preference, find a self-watering container, it makes life much easier. We've tried our the vertical garden kits and they are good, the SKY Planters weren't appropriate for all of the little basil stems.
3. Very, very good drainage such as grit in the bottom of the container and a saucer. Soggy soil does not give great results, the odd stem will flourish and you'll have plenty of flies.
4. Water when your plants look a little wilted. And here is the trick, just water a little down the side of the pot (not over the leaves) and preferably in the evening. By morning your plants will be looking perky again. 

Harvesting? But it's just a basil...
Yes, but you see I used the term 'plants'. A pot of basil is made up of lots of little plants, each is individual and needs to be thought of like that. This is particularly important when it comes to cropping or harvesting.
Each plant needs at least a couple of leaves so that it can re-generate (grow back), so when you are harvesting just pinch off the tops of each plant. This is why you need a few plants. The supermarket kind encourages you to cut down a whole plant. Whereas we sell ours as plug size, each plug containing at least a couple of stems. Most kitchens need 2-3 sets (so up to 18 plugs) to keep a fresh supply of leaves.
Watch out for strong central stems, and pinch them off. These are the plant trying to flower. The flowers are edible, and so are the strong stems but the plant depletes it's strength forming the flower and will reduce the number and flavour of the leaves that remain.

Using basil...
Again there are 100's of recipes and ideas on the interweb, my favourites are pesto, risotto, raw in salads, on a cocktail stick with cherry tomatoes and pearl mozzeralla (snack adapted from The South Beach Diet - low carb!). 
Tom Moggach's new book "The Urban Kitchen Gardener' has this fabulous recipe for basil and lime ice-cream. (Published by Kyle Books, priced £16.99. Photography: Laura Hynd. If you'd like to buy the book, click here).

A knock-out idea, best made with sweet basil. I first heard of it when visiting Sarah Raven, the gardening and cookery writer, in the rolling Sussex hills – a far cry from my urban patch. She, in turn, had first tasted it in De Kas restaurant in Amsterdam, where they grow much of their own produce. I have adapted the original recipe to include the zest of half a lime, which further lifts the incredible flavour. You can use double cream or mascarpone, which lends a superior texture. Eat within a week.
From 'The Urban Kitchen Gardener' by Tom Moggach
ublished by Kyle Books. Photography: Laura Hynd

Serves 6
25g sweet basil leaves
150g caster sugar
200g mascarpone or double cream
400ml full-fat yoghurt
Zest of ½ a lime

Blitz the basil and sugar in a food processor or blender. Add the other ingredients and blitz again, until no lumps remain. Either pour into an ice-cream maker and churn for 20 minutes, then transfer to a plastic container and freeze. Or, if you don’t have an ice-cream maker, pour straight into a plastic container, freeze for 2 hours, then slide a fork around the edges to mix and break up the ice crystals, as you are aiming for a smooth texture. Repeat this process every hour until the ice cream is solid. 


Thai basil leaves ready for drying
Something to think about if you are about to go away for a few days, just when your crop is looking it's best (always happens!).
Freezing - crop as much as you dare, put into a freezer bag and freeze quickly. I keep the stems and leaves in tact, some people chop it first. Or, you can chop it and make ice cubes, once set empty into LABELLED freezer bags. All herbs look the same by this stage! Add them frozen to sauces.
Drying - there are lots of theories about how to dry herbs. The easiest way is to again, crop as far as you dare keeping the leaves on the stem. Tie bundles together and hang somewhere warm but shady. Once dry, crumble into containers, but not air tight ones as your harvest might go mouldy. There is a global rule that sunlight depletes the flavour of dried herbs. So keep an eye out for our new coloured glass storage jars.
Infusing -  your own oil - layer leaves with drizzles of oil and a little salt in an airtight jar. The oil that's left over makes a tasty base for salad dressing.

Links to buy stuff:

Thai basil - from £3.50 for 6 plugs, very fragrant, slight aniseed flavour
Greek basil - from £3.50 for 10 stems, fragrant and the easiest to grow!
Napolitano basil - from £3.50, very basily basil, the original Italian variety
Sweet basil - from £3.50, still the most popular
Lemon basil - from £3.50, basil but lemony
Basil growing kit - £15 including a self-watering trough, in black or white, 12 basil plugs and compost
Vertical garden kit - £49.50 available in dark green or white
SKY Planter - the recycled plastic version, starting at £14.95
The Urban Kitchen Garden Book - £16.99, perfect gift
Kilner jars for storage - not suitable for herb storage unless in a cupboard
Plastic freezer bags - the ones you can label, again from Hamfelds

Copyright Rachael Fisher, Urban Allotments Ltd. No reproduction of images or copy allowed without prior written consent.

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