I don’t know whether it’s just me, but the mere mention of the herb Basil always makes me think fondly back to the 60’s children’s TV programme of my childhood, The Herbs, featuring who else but Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary – alongside Parsley the Lion and Dill the Dog, of course! Basil is rightly known as the King of the Herbs and I certainly can’t imagine my summer cooking without it.
I grow it from seed each year, starting it off in late March in my propagator. It usually germinates quickly, but it’s important to let it grow on in the seed pot until it is large and sturdy enough to handle – pricking the seedlings out too soon inevitably results in failure. I pot the sturdy seedlings on into their final terracotta pots, about 4 plants to a 6-8” diameter pot, using a mix of John Innes soil-based compost (preferably not peaty) and horticultural grit, then top-dress with more grit to ensure good drainage. I leave my basil plants growing in the conservatory, but I imagine they would be happy in a sheltered spot outside in a good summer or in a greenhouse of course, where they also make perfect companion plants for tomato, the distinctive smell allegedly deterring whitefly. I have to confess that the proximity of basil didn’t deter whitefly on my aubergine plants last year in the conservatory, but I’ve grown my aubergines from seed this year, so we shall see!
If you haven’t got your own propagation facilities, you can also grow your own basil either by pricking out the growing plants you can buy in supermarkets, or, even easier, placing a few stems of basil in a jar of water, where they will quickly form roots, then you can pot them up and keep your supply growing – running out of basil doesn’t bear thinking about!
Last week came the moment I’d been waiting for – the first pesto of the year. Often it coincides with the first broad beans from the allotment, but the cold spring has delayed their arrival in sufficient quantities for Broad Bean Pesto, so I resorted to my favourite standard pesto recipe, from Delia Smith’s original Summer Collection. It’s simplicity itself and sooo much nicer than bought pesto.
1 large clove garlic, crushed
1 tbsp pine kernels
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1oz Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, finely grated
Salt & black pepper to taste
Put the basil, crushed garlic, pine kernels and olive oil in a food processor with the seasoning and process until you have a smooth purée. You may need to stop and push it down the sides every so often. Then add the cheese and whizz again until blended. Transfer to a jar (if not intending to use it all straightaway) or a serving bowl. It should keep for a week or so in the jar if kept covered in the fridge – great with pasta or in a rice salad.
Last week I served it with bacon, onions, asparagus and linguine and added the pesto to a cream sauce. Tonight I simply added the pesto to softened onions, bacon and mushrooms, then tossed in the linguine – delicious!
I also love basil simply chopped with quartered cherry tomatoes, preferably home-grown, a clove of garlic, crushed, seasoning, a pinch of sugar, splash of olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Allow to infuse for a while at room temperature then serve on toasted, garlic-rubbed sourdough or ciabatta bread, possibly with a smear of soft, mild goat’s cheese (our local Stonegate Dairy goat’s cheese is sublime here) between the bread and the tomato mix, for the perfect Tomato Bruschetta. The tomatoes aren’t ready yet, although they have finally gone outside, but a girl can dream….
Summer has finally arrived!