King Basil

Perhaps the plant we’ve had the most luck growing is basil.

Not only does it thrive despite too much or too little rain, not enough sunlight or too many insects, but it fills the garden with a lovely licorice aroma.

Given the best conditions, basil plants grow huge – up to six feet. Ours usually make it to about three. Throughout the summer, as you pick off the leaves to use in salads and sauces, they are replaced tenfold. It’s one of those plants where you definitely will have more than you could ever use or give away.

Right now, we have three basil plants growing. One huge plant in our main garden and
two smaller plants in the Accidental Herb Garden. Even though they weren’t planted until August, they are both doing well.

Basil will let you know if the soil is rich in nutrients or not. If it is, the leaves will be  robust green. If not, they will be a paler yellow green.

We’ve always grown them from baby plants, which are inexpensive in the spring at the
local gardening supply stores, but you also can grow the from seed. You can even start them indoors in the winter, if you make sure they have plenty of water and light.

Basil is an annual, which means it usually doesn’t come back the next year. It is
very sensitive to frost, so the autumn’s first freeze instantly will turn your plants black. Make sure to harvest as much as you can whenever there is a season’s first frost advisory.

Basil can be dried by laying the leaves out on sheet pans or screens in a dark,
well-ventilated place. They also can be frozen or stored in oil.

Perhaps basil is most known for its use in pesto sauce, the sweet and tangy Italian
sauce that can be used as a spread, as a pasta sauce, salad dressing, or anything you want to zing up with spicy flavor.

Whole Wheat Pasta with Pesto, Chicken and Zucchini

Whole Wheat Pasta with Pesto, Chicken and Zucchini

Making pesto is super easy, and it’s a great way to use up all the extra basil you’re going to have at toward the end of the summer.

Put it in jars or used salad dressing containers and it will keep in your refrigerator for weeks. Or homemade pesto made with basil you’ve grown yourself makes a heartfelt gift.

Basil also is a central ingredient in Insalata Caprese. I also like to use it on my
white pizza.

Pesto Sauce

Pesto Sauce

Pesto Sauce

2 cups fresh basil leaves, rinsed

4 cloves garlic, whole

1/3 cup EVOO

½ tsp sea salt

½ tsp fresh ground black pepper

¼ cup grated parmesan

¼ cup pine nuts (optional)

Add all ingredients except the parmesan the food processor and pulse until completely mixed. Fold in parmesan. Note: Traditional pesto includes pine nuts, but they are really expensive. Because this is a budget cooking blog, I made them optional. In my opinion, they add more texture than flavor. Try substituting walnuts, which are way less expensive, or leaving them out altogether.

For an interesting variation, try using roasted garlic instead of raw. It makes a much sweeter pesto. Or fold 1 TBS fresh pesto into 1 cup of mayonnaise to make an outstanding basil aoli that will make your next sandwich truly special.

This delicious variation on traditional pizza uses fresh herbs to make an unbelievably flavorful pie that you will rave about.  

White Pizza

Whole wheat pizza dough, cooked

2 TBS EVOO

½ lb fresh mozzarella

7-10 basil leaves, sliced cross-section wise

1 TBS fresh oregano, chopped

1 TBS fresh opal basil, leaves separated but whole

1 cup pulled smoked chicken or pork

1 green pepper, sliced into thin horizontal rings

3-4 slices red onion, rings separated

1 tsp granulated garlic

1 tsp Italian seasoning

½ tsp red pepper flake

My white pizza is the same as my regular pizza, except I just brush the dough with EVOO rather than a red sauce. Assembly is the same. I pile on the fresh herbs and other toppings, covering with discs of fresh cut mozzarella, and seasoned with the dried seasonings before going into a 400F oven for 20 minutes. At the very end, I sprinkle the fresh spicy globe basil leaves. They have an interesting flavor and their micro basil leaves look adorable.

Do you have any recipes that include fresh basil or pesto sauce? Share them in the comments section below.

Budget Cooking – The Accidental Herb Garden

My wife and I planted an herb garden Saturday. I know, I know, it’s kind of late in the season, but it all came about by accident. We’re hoping for the best.

Although I’ve always grown a few fresh herbs in pots during the summer, I’ve never had a dedicated garden set aside just for herbs. I’ve wanted one ever since a few years ago, when my wife and I spent a memorable week at the Westward Look Resort, in Tucson, Arizona. It’s a beautiful place. Walt Disney filmed part of “The Living Desert” documentary there back in the 1950s.

During a walk there one afternoon, I unexpectedly came upon a Chef’s Garden. The resort’s chef had set up quite a large growing area along one of the many terraces upon which the resort is built on the side of a mountain. In it, he grew fresh vegetables, herbs and even flowers that he used in the resort’s restaurant.

Great idea, I thought. I’ll have to try that sometime.

Flash  forward to five years later.

About six weeks ago, our area was hit by a freak microburst storm, which caused a lot of damage and the loss of power to hundreds of thousands of homes. Among the casualties was our lilac tree, which stood 20 feet high just outside my home office window. Each spring, I would look forward to the sweet fragrance of the lilac as it wafted past my
desk.

During the storm, a party tent erected by our backyard neighbor for a graduation party was hurled into the air and crashed down into our backyard, splitting the lilac tree in two. It took about a week to clear the remnants out, and the space has been vacant ever since.

Lilac Tree Split in Half

Lilac Tree Split in Half

My wife, Sandi, and I have talked about planting a permanent herb garden in the space for weeks, but one commitment or another has distracted us from our plan until this past weekend.

I was a little concerned that none of the area greenhouses would have any herbs left this late in the season and, in fact, several we visited had nothing but annuals and shrubs left.

Just as we were ready to give up we decided to try one more greenhouse and, wouldn’t you know it, not only did they have a good selection of herbs left, but they were all priced for clearance. We got all the herbs for our garden for less than $12!

Jalapeno plant

Jalapeno plant

Now we’re growing basil, rosemary, thyme, Greek oregano, chive and flat leaf Italian parsley, in addition to a pretty little pepper plant we bought at the flea market a few weekends ago for $2.50.

There’s nothing better than running outside to clip fresh thyme or basil to add in the middle of your recipe. That always makes me think, “Now this is living.” The fresh herbs available at the grocery store seem to be expensive year round and are never as good quality as home grown. Farmers’ markets never seem to have much to offer in terms of fresh herbs.

Our vegetable garden already is overrun and half-rotting due to hot, wet weather this summer. We haven’t enjoyed the yield in tomatoes, green peppers or jalapenos that we have in prior years, although the cucumbers did well for awhile. I ‘m hoping for a nice long patch of mild weather for the rest of this summer so the vegetable plants can revive and the herb plants can take root and thrive.

Since the garden was just planted, there are plenty of spaces between the plants and Sandi did an amazing job of visualizing then creating a unique space with some leftover river rock we had and some flagstones rescued from my sister’s garage.

I’ll keep you posted.

The Accidental Herb Garden

The Accidental Herb Garden

Meanwhile, here’s a traditional summertime salad that uses some fresh herbs and vegetables from your garden. There’s nothing in the world like home-grown tomatoes, especially at the height of the season, which around here is right now.

Insalata Caprese

3-6 plum tomatoes, or whatever kind you’ve grown yourself

½ pound fresh mozzarella

6-8 large fresh basil leaves

Cracked black pepper

EVOO

1 TBS Balsamic Vinegar

Sea salt to taste

Cut the tops and bottoms off the tomatoes and cut horizontally into about four pieces each. Cut the mozzarella the same thickness.

Arrange the tomato and mozzarella slices on the plate, alternating tomato slice and mozzarella slice. With one large tomato, make one stack. If you’re using smaller plum tomatoes, make two or three stacks per serving.

Chiffonade the basil by stacking the leaves into a pile, rolling into a cigar shape, then starting at one end, use a sharp knife to cut it into thin strips. Sprinkle decoratively over your tomato and mozzarella stacks. Drizzle the EVOO and Balsamic over the stacks, then sprinkle with sea salt. Finally, crack some fresh black pepper over everything.

Now that’s living.