Thursday, November 15, 2012

What to do with a Large Basil Plant

Basil is my favorite herb. I love it for its taste as well as its fragrance. Last year I planted some basil, but it died. So this year, I planted twice as much. I started several plants from seed, but they didn't do well, so I picked up a couple of starter plants from a local nursery. They did great. 

It's now the end of the season, and the plants were trying their hardest to go to seed. I couldn't keep up with the flower plucking (if you let a basil plant go to seed, the plant will put on a bitter taste), so I decided to go ahead and harvest them.

I dehydrated the first plant, and wound up with two pint-jars of dried basil leaves, which is plenty even for me. I also like to have fresh basil on hand, but that's more difficult in the winter, for obvious reasons. Here's a way to preserve "fresh" basil for use during the non-growing season.

Here is about one-third of my plant, waiting to be washed and culled.

Even though I was diligent in removing flowers or seed pods, a few got by me. As I cleaned and stripped the plant, I saved any dried seed pods I came across. I will collect the seeds from those later.

As I cleaned and removed the leaves, I put them in my blender. Depending on the size of the plant, you may be able to process a lot of the stems with the leaves. However, this plant was so big that I didn't want to include the stems, because they were thick and woody.

Once I had a full blender, I just added some olive oil and blended. You can use a different oil if you want. I didn't measure the oil as I poured it in. The idea is to add enough to coat the chopped leaves, which will help with cohesiveness and also help the basil keep its color after freezing, which is what I'm going to do with this once I'm finished.

I set the blender on medium at first, but the leaves are so light that the blender's centrifugal force just blew the leaves to the sides where the blades couldn't reach. So I used the lower setting, which helped some. I still had to stop the blender and use a spoon to push the leaves back in reach of the blades a few times. If you own a food processor, you might have better luck using that over a blender. I just don't happen to own one.

I poured the chopped-up basil into an ice tray, pushing the leaves down into each opening and packing it in good and tight.

Once I had a full tray, I wrapped it tightly with some plastic wrap. The wrap won't stick to the tray, so I wrapped it halfway around again, where the plastic could stick to itself.

I wound up with two full trays from the basil plant. I let them freeze for about two days. I probably could have taken them out sooner, but I was busy, so I just left them in the freezer until I had time to work with them again. I pulled the trays out, unwrapped them and set them on the counter.

To loosen the basil from the tray, I tried the twisting trick that usually works for ice cubes, but it didn't work so great. I wound up using a knife to loosen up the basil cubes. Not that the basil was really stuck to the trays - I probably could have just turned the trays over and dumped out the basil, but I was trying to be neat.

The cubes came out mostly whole. This is the second time I've processed basil in this way. I think the first time I did it, the cubes held together better. I might have used less oil this time than I did previously.

We typically use these cubes to add to spaghetti sauce. However, they are also good for adding to soups and omelets, or you can drop one into your pan when cooking up meats or stir fry, too. You can use this in any recipe that calls for fresh basil (unless you need whole leaves, of course). This year's basil has a stronger flavor than the stuff I had two years ago, so I add half of a cube to a dish at a time, to make sure the taste isn't overpowering.

After the cubes are removed from the trays, I just store them in the freezer in sealable sandwich bags. You can leave them tightly wrapped in the trays if you want, but the baggies take up less freezer space. Any crumbs or broken cubes go into the bags with the whole cubes. Since I have so much this year, I might seal some in FoodSaver bags, to better protect against frostbite.

So there you have it. Yummy, "fresh" basil preserved for winter use. 

I left a small part of the plant in the ground and will allow it to go to seed, so I can collect the seeds for next year.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lessons Learned with Calcium Hypochlorite

One of our neighbors is starting to be interested in prepping. The other day, he was asking questions about water storage. The hubster told him about calcium hypochlorite. This is usually marketed in swimming pool stores as high-test hypochlorite (HTH), or  "pool shock." I remember my Papa using this stuff to clean out his pool every year after winter. He would "shock" the pool, and we weren't allowed to swim in it for three days afterward. That's a long time when you're ten years old and you want to go swimming.

Some preppers keep calcium hypochlorite around for water purification purposes. Here and here are some good articles about it. The only thing is, it's a pretty serious chemical. It's an oxidizer and when a large amount of it mixes with a small amount of water, it can be highly reactive, generating high temperatures. HTH is self-reactive anyway, and produces chlorine gas as it decomposes. The fumes can be deadly if a person breathes too much of it. As an oxidizer, it's also corrosive, so calcium hypochlorite - and its vapors - need to be kept from contact with anything metal. It's probably not a good idea to store it around electronics either. Lastly, keep it away from other chemicals. If a spill were to occur and calcium hypochlorite accidentally mixed with another chemical, a fire could result.

We had several bags of HTH, and the hubster decided to give one to The Neighbor. The photo above is not the actual stuff we bought, but what we did buy was packaged in the same style - a sort of plastic, one-pound bag. (I've since learned that calcium hypochlorite is packaged in breathable containers to avoid pressure buildup while in storage). When we originally bought the calcium hypochlorite, the hubster put the bags inside a bucket, labeled the bucket with all kinds of warnings, and then placed the bucket inside a large, rubberized trash can we use for newspaper recycling. The idea was that the newspaper would soak up any humidity (or other moisture), hopefully keeping the HTH safe.

When the hubster opened the bucket to pull a bag out for The Neighbor, he found a surprise. Firstly, the fumes had built up in the bucket more than he anticipated, and he had to quickly step away to avoid breathing the chlorine gas. Once the fumes dissipated, he found that inside the bucket, the bags had grown brittle, and all but disintegrated in his hand when he tried to pick them up. He had also stored some instructions for use along with the store receipt inside a ziploc bag inside the bucket. The papers had turned a dull grey, making it unreadable, and came apart at the folds when I tried to take them out of the bag.  

So, what have we learned here?
  1. HTH is no joke. It's a very strong, very deadly chemical. 
  2. Don't leave HTH in the cheap plastic bag it's sold in. It doesn't take long for the bag to become brittle and fall apart. 
  3. While it needs to be stored in such a way that there's little, if any, chance that it could come into contact with moisture or with metal, one still has to be aware of chlorine gas buildup when opening the storage container. It's best to open the container outdoors or in a very-well-ventilated area. Be prepared to step away in order to avoid breathing deadly fumes.
  4. The bucket we have our calcium hypochlorite stored in, is probably not a full-proof, long-term storage solution. Eventually the bucket will probably become brittle and crack. We will continue researching better storage methods. I read at least one suggestion online to keep HTH in glass reagent bottles with a ground glass stopper. In the meantime, our plan is to check on the bucket about every three months or so to ensure its integrity.
Needless to say, we weren't able to give The Neighbor a bag of HTH. We did share the story with him, for informational purposes, and passed on some notes about using calcium hypochlorite for water purification. Make sure you do your homework before using, handling or storing dangerous chemicals.