Lots of cruisers have a pot of basil growing in the cockpit; I often found it at farmer’s markets, on veggie trucks and occasionally growing on the counter at a small tienda (see how to store it for several weeks at the bottom of this article). Living ashore, I love the aroma of fresh basil in the garden. But somehow, when I used it in cooking, it just never tasted like I expected.
About two weeks ago, my brother and his wife came for a visit. And one night, we were having tomatoes with basil . . . and that’s when I learned the secret of using fresh basil. Most recipes have you (1) add the basil early in the cooking process, when you add other herbs and spices and (2) tell you to chop the basil. Both destroy the flavor.
The wonderful basil scent and flavor comes from the oils. These evaporate quickly — even more so when exposed to heat. And chopping basil tends to expose more of the oils to the air.
So the tricks are two-fold:
- Add the basil to a dish just as you’re serving it — if it’s a hot dish, remove it from the fire before sprinkling the basil over the top, and don’t stir it in. If the food is at room temperature or cold (such as a salad), it’s okay to quickly toss it with the other ingredients.
- Gently tear the basil leaves off the stem and then into small pieces with your fingers as you’re sprinkling them on. Don’t use a knife to chop and don’t tear them up ahead of time. In fact, don’t even tear the leaves off the stems before you’re ready to use them.
I have to admit, LeeAnn’s version of tomatoes-with-basil was ten times better than anything that I’ve put on the table. And now I’m using her tips to seriously improve my tossed salads and spaghetti sauce. NOW the basil is every bit as good in my food as it smells in the garden!
For tossed salads, where I used to add the basil to the dressing that I made up ahead of time, I’m now making the dressing without the basil and adding it just as I toss the salad. Lots more flavor!
Storing Fresh Basil
The easiest — and best — way to store fresh basil is right on the stem, as if it were cut flowers. Cut a tiny bit off the bottom of each stem, and stick it in a glass of water (wedge the glass in or put it in a drink holder — or use one of those “unspillable” coffee mugs with the big nonskid base). Change the water daily, and the basil will last one to two weeks, sometimes more.
If you’ve brought the basil home from a store or farmer’s market, it may look a bit wilted at first. But after 12 hours or so in the water, it usually perks right up.