Fresh basil for a taste of summer

Sweet basil is probably the easiest and fastest growing herb for the indoor gardener. An annual plant grown for culinary and ornamental purposes, it flourishes both indoors and out when afforded full sun or even semishade.

Although the current most popular use for this herb is in making pesto, basil has many uses in the kitchen and any cook who has used it only in the dried state should try the fresh leaves.

The seeds germinate quickly when sown directly in the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Planted as a companion to tomatoes, some say basil will improve their flavor and growth.

For indoor use sow two or three seeds on top of a potting mixture and cover with milled sphagum moss to prevent damping off. In a warm window setting seeds will germinate in about a week. After plants have sprouted and developed a second set of leaves, transplant to separate pots.

Frequent pinching keeps the plant busy producing more bushy growth. Since fresh basil is sometimes difficult to find in ordinary markets, it makes a great deal of sense to grow your own. In mid-summer, however, you can often find it at specialty stores, roadside stands or farmers' markets.

Many garden vegetables welcome the embellishment fresh basil provides. This pungent herb also complements eggs, fish, cheese, stuffings, poultry, meats and salads. Probably its most common use is in tomato recipes. Use it in tomato juices, soups, and sauces. Chopped fresh basil leaves sprinkled on fresh tomato slices make a colorful salad.

Make herb vinegar by bruising fresh basil leaves and adding them to white vinegar.

When it is available in quantity you may want to chop the fresh leaves, add some olive oil and freeze it for use in winter. Many people make copious amounts of pesto sauce and use it all for one glorious pasta feast or thoughtfully divide it up among friends.

Pesto is an Italian invention, designed primarily to flavor freshly made fettucine. Its use, however, should not be restricted to noodle dishes.

Drizzle it over tomatoes, green beans, summer squash, baked potato or fresh corn and discover what the Italians have known for centuries - pesto is delicious.

Try it on on charcoal grilled hamburgers or steaks. Add small amounts to a tossed green salad. Use pesto to season vegetable soup or minestrone.

The true herbalist will use a mortar and pestle to prepare fresh basil for pesto. Actually an electric blender works wonderfully well and accomplishes the task much quicker. Either method effectively combines all of the essential ingredients into an elegant sauce. Pesto Sauce 2 cups fresh basil leaves 3 cloves garlic 1/2 cup olive oil 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese 1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts

Place basil, garlic and nuts in blender. Blend until leaves and nuts are pulverized. Add oil and blend until mixture is smooth. Add cheese and blend briefly. Sauce should be refrigerated until used.

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