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Pungent, flavorful basil is among the most versatile of the culinary herbs. In the summertime, it can be purchased freshly cut in large produce departments. The best way, however, to have basil on hand for fresh summertime dishes is to grow it. Seed racks and catalogs are filled with amazing varieties. There are sweet, scented, Italian, Thai
and Greek basils, each with a different leaf shape and flavor.

Most edible basils are cultivars of the species Ocimum basilicum. The smooth-leaved types that grow two to three feet tall are the best-known for culinary use. There are also highly perfumed, crinkly-leaved and ruffly-leaved varieties, which are not only good for cooking but double as attractive focal points in the landscape. Here’s a rundown of some of the most popular types:

· Opal basil has deep red to purple leaves, which make a striking color contrast to green-leaved plants in the garden. In the kitchen, they lend a soft pink tint to basil vinegars. Although their flavor is superb, be cautious about using them in light-colored foods such as cream-based soups. Their color may lend a grayish color to food, not very appetizing by most standards.

· In contrast to the large types, the tiny-leaved basils produce small, six-inch mounds that make a great edging in vegetable gardens. These small globe basils have a delicate flavor that is easily lost in the drying process and is best used fresh or frozen.

· For an entirely different taste, try a scented basil such as cinnamon, anise or lemon. Holy basil, a different species than culinary basil, gets its name from the fact that it is a sacred herb in the Hindu religion, where it is used for tea.

· Thai basils have deep maroon-tinged leaves on purple stems and whorls of intense purple flowers. Although the concentrated anise flavor may overpower all but the strongest foods, this is one of the most beautiful for use in the landscape.

According to the National Garden Bureau, Basil asks for nothing more in the garden than full sun and well-drained soil. It grows quickly from seed, giving you fresh basil to harvest until the first killing frost. Like most herbs, its flavor is affected by chemical fertilizers, so stick to compost and other organic types.

The NGB also suggest harvesting basil just as the flower buds begin to form, when the leaves contain the most concentrated oils and provide the best flavor and fragrance. Once the plant begins to expend energy in flower and seed production, it loses some of its potency. To harvest, cut or pinch basil just above a leaf or pair of leaves, removing no more than a quarter of the plant. This leaves plenty of foliage to keep the plant healthy and growing.

Simple air drying produces tasty basil for use all winter. Rinse the leaves in cool water and gently pat dry in paper towels. Tie a handful of stems firmly into a bundle and hang in a dry place where the temperature doesn't get above 80 degrees. After two to four weeks, the herbs should be dry and crumbly.

To oven-dry, place leaves on a cookie sheet and put into a 180 degree oven for three to four hours, leaving the door ajar. In the microwave, heat the herbs on a paper towel or paper plate for 30 second intervals, turning or mixing as needed until dried.

Once basil is dried, store it in an airtight container in a dark cupboard. Keep the leaves whole, if possible, to preserve the oils, and crush or grind only when using them. Only keep dried basil a year or so, discarding the previous season’s harvest when the new one is ready.

To retain just-picked flavor, freeze basil in water or olive oil. To start, put a handful of washed leaves in a food processor or blender with enough water or oil to make a slurry. When processed, pour into ice cube trays, make sure each cube has enough liquid to cover the chopped leaves, and freeze. Turn out the cubes and store them in a labeled freezer container.

To make basil-flavored vinegars, simply fill a jar with washed leaves and pour cold vinegar over them (use white vinegar to show off the beautiful pink color of opal basil). Tighten the lid and set in a warm pantry or on a sunny windowsill for 3-4 weeks. Then strain the vinegar into decorative bottles and add a sprig or two of fresh basil for a garnish.

To grow basil indoors in winter, find a spot that receives a few hours of sun each day or use fluorescent lights. Basil plants grown from seed this way will not get very large or sturdy, but if you clip them regularly and plant seeds every two weeks, you will have fresh herbs to add to soups, pasta or pesto all winter.

Pesto is the classic basil dish. It takes its name from the mortar and pestle that were once used to grind the basil, but today we use a food processor. Here are instructions for pesto sauce:

2 cups basil (leaves only)
clove or 2 of garlic (to taste)
3 tbs. pine nuts
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
salt to taste

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of the food processor and process until as smooth as desired. If the pesto is too thick it can be diluted slightly with a teaspoon or so of the water the pasta was cooked in.

Serve over fresh pasta. (The pasta of choice is Rotini or something similar, as the twists in it hold onto the sauce better than round noodles do.)