Basil at Summer’s End

With the cold weather coming into Chicagoland later this month, it’s a good time to harvest, protect, or bring cold-sensitive plants like basil indoors. Basil’s tender leaves turn brown when exposed to low temperatures, which usually happens below 50 degrees.

To harvest basil, check out The Garden Minute.

Basil is best stored with the stems in a glass or vase of water (like a bouquet of flowers) at room temperature until you are ready to use it. Although some basil is sold at the grocery store in the refrigerated section, it is usually packaged in thick plastic, and sometimes the basil is treated to prevent browning that comes with cold exposure.

Fresh basil stored like this will keep crisp for several days.

Fresh basil stored like this will keep crisp for several days.

If your basil is already in a plant pot, just bring it inside and put it in a sunny window. If it’s in your garden plot and you want to transplant it into a pot, you can dig it up – carefully – keeping the root ball intact, with as much soil on it as possible. Place this in a pot that has a drainage hole at the bottom, using more potting soil to fill it up. Water thoroughly! This will help keep the leaves from wilting, as the plant experiences a little ‘shock’ from being removed from the ground. Take a moment to do a little basil maintenance and cut off any flowers, remove dead or dying leaves, and add a little liquid fertilizer.

To cover basil in your outdoor garden, protect with a floating row cover like this.

Basil’s fresh flavor can be preserved in many ways, such as in oil-filled ice cube trays or pesto. Here’s our favorite pesto recipe from our book, Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland. To keep basil leaves bright green, you can try blanching them first, though it may lead to a milder flavor in the finished pesto.

Basil Pesto Sauce – makes 1/2 cup

  • 2 cups basil leaves, packed
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons shredded Parmesan or Romano cheese
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Instructions: Combine basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor or blender. Pulse a few times. Slowly add olive oil while food processor is on. Stop once or twice to scrape down sides of food processor with a rubber spatula. Process until smooth. Add cheese, and salt and pepper to taste. Pulse again until just blended.

Serve immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container with a thin layer of olive oil on top to seal in freshness. Pesto also freezes well; freeze in ice cube trays for smaller portions (these thaw very quickly!).

This classic recipe calls for basil and pine nuts. If you want a variation, try substituting other herbs like cilantro or parsley, or other nuts such as walnuts.