For heat-loving Basil, ’tis the season!

July 31st, 2013


With a long “canicule” heat wave hanging over us, the moment for basil is clearly here.  The glossy green leaves of occimum basilicum are at their pungent best on long summer days – ready to pinch off and scatter over any plate of tomatoes at hand.  The ancient Greeks called this member of the mint family basilikon phuton:  a royal or magnificent herb.  Sweet basil, the large leafed bushy herb is happiest -  its essential oils are most active – in well drained soil, whether in the ground or a large pot in the sun.  But basil’s distinctive fragrance diminishes and lower leaves begin to yellow if it is parched, so a daily dose of water at the base and a little mulch keeps it happily producing more leaves for salads and sauces.  Pinch off  flower buds to use as a seasoning in sauces or as decoration (they are edible!) – to keep the leaves coming.  The basil variety on my window sill, a peppery genovese, has small leaves and a very compact,  round form.


Of the 150 basils available  around the globe, we are tempted by cinnamon or lemon basil, and the purple or dark opal basils that lend their unique tint to vinegars.  In spite of its strong character, basil loses flavor if cooked very long; it is best added in the last five or ten minutes to a sauce or soup as a terminal addition. To boost flavors in a marinade or lend a dressing more punch, tear – don’t chop – basil to avoid blackened edges.  This Mediterannean herb marries flavors with thyme, marjoram, oregano and rocket as companions,  but any combo with dill or tarragon is best avoided.  It has surprised me in recent years to find experiments with drying basil to be a waste of time (if dried it loses oils and essential flavor), so use it fresh….now and ’til the first chilly winds of autumn blow, basil has its time in the sun!