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How Sweet It Is

August 15, 1996|MARILYN KLUGER

If I were ever limited to growing only one herb, it would be sweet basil. It is by far the most useful culinary herb in my garden, enhancing tomatoes, pasta dishes and spaghetti sauces, salads, fish and meats, eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, potatoes, cheeses, vegetable soups, eggs, vinegars and more.

Sweet basil's large, bright green leaves have a sharp, spicy, clove-like flavor. The square-stemmed plants are both fragrant and ornamental. We always plant a long row of basil among the vegetables, herbs and flowers. Bees love the white flowers blossoming in spikes atop the bushes, and I have a lavish abundance of basil, more than I need and plenty for friends. Enough, too, for large herbal bouquets to scent the house, sometimes in combination with summer flowers or other herbs.

Sweet basil can be grown easily from seeds, which are readily available in garden stores or wherever seeds are sold. Seeds should be planted 1/4 inch deep and an inch apart in rows 1 1/2-feet apart. Sweet basil seeds germinate in seven to 10 days in warm weather. The plants grow to a height of 2 feet or more and are mature in 80 to 90 days. The row of basil must be thinned out when the plants reach 2 inches in height to allow at least 7 inches between the bushes. And there you have your first fresh basil to use in cookery.

The plants grow quickly, and you can begin harvesting regularly, though sparingly, after the basil plants have reached a height of 7 or 8 inches. A row of basil in the garden should provide an adequate supply within a month after planting if the weather is warm. To harvest, pinch off the top of the plants and they'll bush out from the bottom. Then strip the leaves from the stems to use in cooking.

I also like to have several dark opal basil bushes. Other basil has white flowers, but opal basil has reddish-purplish leaves and pink flowers. It makes a beautiful herbal vinegar. Dark opal basil seeds are usually included in the seed assortments, along with sweet basil. The flavor is similar and it can be used interchangeably in recipes, though you won't get exactly the same flavor. The opal basil makes an unattractive pesto, but it's pretty in salads.

There are many, many other varieties of basil, but seeds for them are not so readily available. You can, however, find many other interesting types of basil at herb plant sales and at greenhouses.

Basil can be grown in pots and in flower beds as well as in the garden. To have fresh basil during the winter, plant some in a large clay pot, sink the pot in the ground during the growing season, keeping it trimmed and not allowing it to flower or go to seed as it grows, then dig up the pot and bring it indoors to a sunny window before cold weather comes. Or plant some seeds in pots and use the young plants during the winter.

My luck with growing basil indoors hasn't been great, but I make quantities of pesto base according to the following recipe and use it in winter as I would fresh basil.

Basil blossoms are used in salads and vinegars, but it is best to keep basil bushes trimmed, not allowing them to flower or go to seed before the end of the summer season. At the first chill, basil is gone. It is native to Old World warm climates and cannot stand cold.

PESTO BASE

4 cups packed, fresh basil leaves, washed and stripped from stems

4 small cloves garlic

3/4 to 1 cup olive oil

Coarsely chop basil in food processor, then gradually add garlic and olive oil. Continue blending until mixture resembles smooth sauce.

Use at once in recipe for Pesto Sauce that follows.

Or place Pesto Base in ice cube trays, freeze solid, then remove cubes and store in freezer bags. Use in Pesto Sauce for pasta or for convenient basil seasoning in other recipes. Thaw frozen basil cubes in refrigerator to prevent blackening.

Makes 1 1/2 to 2 cups.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

61 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 0 carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.01 gram fiber.

PESTO SAUCE WITH PASTA

Purists might insist that true pesto sauce is made by carefully, patiently pounding sweet basil, garlic and pine nuts together into a paste, using a marble mortar and wooden pestle (hence, pesto), then gradually working in Parmesan and Romano cheeses and olive oil. In most American kitchens, food processors and blenders are boons to pesto makers, producing marvelous pesto.

1/2 cup Pesto Base or to taste

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, or combination

1/4 cup chopped pine nuts or walnuts, optional

1/4 cup olive oil, if needed, to thin pesto base to spooning consistency

1 pound of your favorite pasta

2 tablespoons cooking liquid from pasta

2 tablespoons butter

Combine Pesto Base with cheese. Add pine nuts and olive oil to thin Pesto Sauce to spooning consistency. Set aside.

Cook pasta in boiling salted water until tender. Drain pasta, reserving 2 tablespoons cooking liquid. Do not rinse pasta.

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