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Thursday, July 17, 2003 02:20 pm

King of the herbs


One of the highlights of July is garden-fresh tomatoes with olive oil and fresh basil. Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow. The International Herb Association has declared it the herb of the year for 2003.

Most basils that you use for cooking are cultivars of the species Ocimum basilicum, or sweet basil. Loosely translated, Ocimum basilicum means the "king of fragrance."

At this point in the season basil will benefit from a two- to three-inch layer of organic mulch to help retain soil moisture and minimize weeds. Basil thrives in warm weather and benefits from one inch of water per week. Do not fertilize, as this will result in a decrease in flavor.

Now that you have it planted, what should you do with it? For maximum flavor, harvest basil just as the flower buds begin to form. Leave enough foliage on the plant so it will continue to grow. Cut top leaves off about 1/4 inch above the pair of leaves lower down the stem. Basil may be harvested every two to three weeks in the morning, just after the dew has evaporated around 10.

Basil plants have beautiful, edible, and attractive flowers that can be used for garnishes. 'Siam Queen' Thai basil has bright green leaves, purple red stems, and violet-pink flowers that make a beautiful specimen in the garden.

Fresh, frozen, or dried basil adds flavor to food dishes without adding fat or sodium. The best flavor is found in fresh leaves, which should be washed with cold water just prior to adding to a dish. Basil is traditional in Italian, Mediterranean, and Thai cookery. Today, it's one of the most widely used herbs in modern cooking, adding zip to pasta, rice, tomatoes, cheese, soups, salads, fish, and poultry dishes.

Mass plantings of Purple Ruffles basil can be viewed in combinations with dusty miller and geraniums on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. For more information on growing, selecting, and using basil, visit this Web fact sheet prepared by Ohio State University:

Tip of the week
Now is the time to harvest your garlic.

Evening in the Garden

Red 'Knock Out' shrub roses, a lane of lavender, a curving stone retaining wall, and a Patriotic garden are among the new additions to this year's 5,000-square-foot Master Gardener Demonstration Garden on the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

A free evening program at the garden will be held on Thursday, July 24. Walking tours begin at 6:30 p.m. in front of the U. of I. Extension building #30. Continuous tours will be offered by the master gardeners of the U of I Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit; they'll also answer questions.

Varieties of flowers planted throughout the State Fairgrounds are featured and labeled in the Identification Garden. Also included are a perennial garden, a patriotic garden, and an herb garden with a "Bay of Basil."

Tasty pesto

A Mediterranean favorite made with basil, pesto can be added to soups, vegetables, fish, and pasta.

1 cup fresh green basil leaves, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup pine nuts

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon butter, softened

1 clove garlic, crushed

Salt to taste

Puree the basil with pine nuts, oil, Parmesan cheese, butter, garlic, and salt. Place in a glass jar. Pour a thin layer of olive oil over top. Screw on lid and refrigerate until ready to use. Discard after 24 hours or freeze for later use. Yield: About 1/2 cup.
Nutritional Analysis Per Tablespoon: 82 calories, 2 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrate, 8 grams fat, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 108 milligrams sodium.

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