Fall is a great time of year to think about herbs. Harvests are in and there are many fresh herbs just waiting to be used and preserved for later uses.
This time of year, I'm elbow deep in tomato canning so I quite naturally think of basil when I think of herbs. If not my favorite, it's certainly among the top three.
According to Penzey's (the leading purveyor of herbs and spices on the net can be found at http://www.penzeys.com) it is the most popular herb in America today but was quite unknown here until about thirty years ago.
The kind most widely available has soft, dark green leaves, somewhat like leaf lettuce, tiny creamy white flowers and a very pungent aroma. If you're into growing your own -- and I highly recommend it -- try some of the other varieties available, among them Bush Basil which has smaller leaves and grows only 12 inches high; or Dark Opal and Citriodorum, both of which have a purple leaf although Citriodorum is lemon-scented.
Basil is a great addition to any rich fish dishes; try it with mackerel, shellfish or salmon. Add it chopped to egg dishes such as omelets, frittatas and the like. Use several of the different varieties of basil chopped into salads and feel your taste buds stand up and take notice! Of course, let's not forget, it has an affinity for any dish which includes tomatoes, and can be added to soft cheeses, pasta, vegetable soups, and cream sauces.
With many culinary as well as non-culinary uses, basil is quite popular in herb wreaths, as an insect repellent -- grow some in a windowsill box and watch the flies stay away! -- or in a tisane against flatulence and nausea.
Herbal tisanes have a delicate flavour and ideally should be made in a glass or ceramic pot kept expressly for that purpose. The tannic residue from brewing black teas will mask the flavour as well as detract from the positive effects of the tisane if you use your everyday teapot.
Allow two teaspoons of the dried herb for each cup of tisane. Place the basil in a warmed pot, pour a measured amount of boiling water over it and cover. Allow it to steep for ten to fifteen minutes -- no more -- and strain. It's not a good idea to increase the steeping time as too much exposure to heat will result in a loss of the volatile oils through evaporation. Tisanes deteriorate with time and have a relatively short shelf life. If you want to serve it as an iced tea, cool and strain the liquid, pour into a jar with a lid and refrigerate for no more than twenty four hours.
Herbal tisanes -- I'll be listing more in future columns -- are mildly medicinal and can be taken to relieve symptoms for a period of four to eight weeks, three times per day, after meals. If symptoms persist or increase, medical help should be sought. Taking them before meals is not recommended as they can dilute stomach juices and cause indigestion. Several herbs can be blended when making a tisane, depending on the effects wanted. I will be including a chart in a future column for quick reference. Remember, just as with antibiotics and other modern medicines, herbal remedies can sometimes take time to strengthen and stimulate the system. Patience is a virtue.
Fragrant herbal oils and vinegars can be used to dress salads, in sauces and marinades or they can be brushed on fish and meat for broiling. They make a great addition to casseroles and soups too. I have a fairly generic recipe for herb oil and herb vinegar that I picked up somewhere along my travels, where I just substitute the herb of choice. They work very well and, in a pretty cruet or bottle, make a great hostess gift!
- 6 tbsp chopped fresh basil (or herb of choice)
- 2 1/2 cups olive oil
- 1 - 2 sprigs of basil (or other)
Pound the basil to a paste in a mortar and pestle or a mixing bowl (I sometimes take the lazy way out and do this in my processor). Stir in a tablespoon or so of oil and mix until well blended. Add the remaining oil, pour into a dry, sterilized jar, cover and set aside for two weeks, shaking it up once or twice a day. Strain into a new sterilized bottle or bottles, add fresh sprigs of basil, seal and store in a cool, dark place.
- 10 tbsp chopped fresh basil (or herb of choice)
- 2 1/2 cups white wine vinegar
- 1 - 2 sprigs of basil (or other)
Pound the basil to a paste and transfer to a heatproof container. Pour the vinegar into a non reactive pan (I have a Corning Ware pot that is marked for liquid measure that I use but stainless steel works well too), bring it to a boil and pour it over the herb. Stir well and leave to cool. Pour into a sterilized jar, cover and set aside for three weeks, shaking it up once or twice a day. Strain into new sterilized bottles, add fresh basil sprigs, seal and store in a cool, dark place.
- Yields: 2 1/2 cups
No column featuring Basil would be complete without a recipe for Pesto. Here's mine:
- 2 cups, packed, of fresh basil, leaves only, washed and dried
- 4 - 6 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup pine nuts (pignoli)
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Place garlic in the bowl of your food processor and process until coarse. Add basil, salt, and pine nuts and continue processing til leaves are fine. Add cheese and combine. Slowly drizzle olive oil into bowl and continue processing until all the oil is incorporated.
Serve over pasta or stir into minestrone. Pesto also goes well on baked potatoes or spread over a pizza dough and baked like Focaccia.