A hottie herb used to make pesto has become a household favourite. Valerie O’Connor offers mouth-watering tips on how to grow this taste-osterone fuelled Italian.

asil is the delicious and fragrant delicate herb that we just can’t get enough of since pesto exploded into our lives back in the nineties.

Since then it’s been pasta with pesto, salmon with pesto, pesto bake, bacon with pesto, pesto with pesto. Pesto, for a while was a bit of a pest. It’s easy to buy nice pesto anywhere these days, though many are made with less than best ingredients. Of course the famous pesto Liguria, from Italy uses carefully handpicked basil from well cared-for plants.

If you want to grow your own basil it’s very easy and the plants will last about two months each, if you keep them well watered and grow them in organic compost. The plants that you buy from shops look great because there are so many seeds used in each pot so you get a really full plant, but once you take it home you will see how quickly it dies. These plants are also forced in hot-house conditions so don’t adapt too well to your Irish kitchen and tend to die quickly.

There are many varieties of basil to buy so just get started with a regular basil. Holy basil and purple basil have different flavours and all these herbs can be used in many dishes, not just Italian, they are great to pep up an Asian noodle salad or soup or to stuff into fresh spring rolls.

To grow your own basil just get a packet of seeds. You will need some small pots and some good compost, regular compost won’t do as there isn’t enough nutrition to feed an edible plant. John Innes Number 2 will do the job. Simply fill your pots two thirds full and pop in just two seeds per pot. Cover with soil and water them well. Don’t put them outside, leave them on a sunny window sill, and seedlings will appear quickly.

Within three weeks you should have a plant a couple of inches tall. To create a full, bushy plant pinch out the top shoots, the big leaves on the top just above the new small, ones underneath.

Don’t go mad picking the leaves until the plants are a bit more mature, the pinching out will encourage new growth. If you really love basil, then plant new seeds every three to four weeks to keep you in fresh stock of this wonderful herb.

To recycle your pots for succession planting, just get an old container like a tub and fill it with compost and some bits of broken ceramic or stones for drainage. Pop the plants out of their pots, loosen the roots gently and lay them in the tub, not too many together and fill them in with soil. Water the plants in well — a well tended basil plant should keep giving for about two months before it goes to flower, but you can keep on sowing them until the end of summer, so now is good.

Two of the most popular things to do with basil are pesto and bruschetta. In my wheat-free days there was nothing I missed more than a big bowl of spaghetti, but now that I’m off meat I’m eating all these things again.

If you’re staying away from wheat there are great pastas made from spelt or brown rice. I find the brown rice spaghetti good for a sauce like pesto, as it’s not as dense as the spelt. Vegans can leave out the cheese or use vegan cheese which I am currently working on. (I’ll report when all is safe to do so).

PESTO

A treasured staple of Italian cooking and now a sauce, condiment, call it what you will, an institution in food, loved the world over. Making your own is easy and nothing compares to the flavours you get from home-made freshly picked leaves, just blitzed and stirred into your hot spaghetti. If you don’t want to wait a month to make this recipe then by all means go and get some plants from the supermarket, but why not buy a packet of seeds at the same time? Some recipes call for blanching the basil but I think this just dulls the flavour. Ingredients:

You will need a food processor. Grab as much basil as you have, about 8 cups will make enough for today and another meal 1/2 cup parmesan cheese 2 tblsp pine nuts — toasted or not, some people say walnuts taste just as good 2 garlic cloves — good organic garlic is best 1/2 cup mild olive oil, don’t use extra virgin, it’s too peppery Sea salt

METHOD

In your food processor blitz the garlic and then add the basil, in batches if needed, then add the nuts and blitz again. Spoon out the mixture and pour in the olive oil and stir well to loosen up the herb mixture, now stir in the cheese and about 1/2 tsp sea salt and your pesto is ready.

Cook your spaghetti to the instructions on the packet, being careful not to overcook it. Ladle some pesto into a big bowl and lift your spaghetti out of the pot so it still has some water clinging to it, don’t let it sit to get sticky in a colander.

Mix it through the pesto, adding a little more cooking water from the pot if you need the sauce to adhere better, this makes a lovely silky sauce that holds much better to the pasta. Drizzle on some extra cheese and get stuck in. Keep any extra pesto in a jar, covered with some extra olive oil.

BRUSCHETTA

Currently one of the most ordered starters in restaurants and often dubiously made. Cheese on bruschetta?? I don’t think so. You need good robust bread to make a good bruschetta and the whole point of it is to use up bread that’s going stale. I always use sourdough as it won’t go soggy under the tomatoes, but use any good rustic bread you can get. This is summer freshness and simplicity on a plate, or a slate if you’re in a restaurant, or a shovel if you’re in some hipster joint.

Serves 2

2 large slices of good bread, white or a rustic rye and white mix 1 clove of garlic, peeled 2 large or 10-12 small plum tomatoes, any tasty tomatoes will do Olive oil, a glug/ Sea salt and pepper Fresh basil leaves Toast the bread. Chop the tomatoes and pile them into a bowl with the olive oil, basil, salt and pepper, mix it all around.

When the bread pops from the toaster, rub the garlic into it while it’s still hot, paying attention to the crusty bits where the garlic will melt in better.

Pile on the tomato mix and it’s ready to eat.


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