Among perpetual kitchen aggravations, storing fresh basil is up there. Leave it out, and it's wilted or dead in no time. Put it in the fridge, and it turns black. If storing fresh basil gives you a headache, imagine the poor basil growers. How do you get it to market without wrecking it, and how do you store it once it's there?
Jim Simon may be about to solve these problems. He's a Rutgers University professor of plant biology and plant pathology who also runs the New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products Program there. And he loves basil. So he and his team of researchers figured out how to cultivate chill-resistant basil.
No genetic engineering here -- just good old-fashioned hybridization. In 2002 they started with more 6,700 individual plants and began subjecting them to cold temperatures, selecting out the ones that did okay. Then they had to figure out which ones smelled and tasted best. After that, they started crossbreeding the best of the best.
"Right now we have over 25 new lines including 15 hybrids that look very good and we're challenging them to taste test and chilling," Simon said. "Of those, there are about four that rise about the rest."
And don't just take his word for it. Turns out Simon and crew have been slipping their basil creations into taste tests for two years now at the Rutgers' annual Great Tomato Tasting at their main research farm in Pittstown, N.J. A little mozzarella, a little oil and a little basil and voila – lots of takers and lots of good feedback.
Simon and company have a good track record with transferring their research of all sorts (he's also a big pepper researcher) into useful products available to the general public. The organic basil they developed that's resistant to the basil-killing disease fusarium is already on the market under the name Poppy Joe's basil -- Poppy Joe being Simon's grandfather. And he's just starting work on a basil that is resistant to the disease downy mildew.
He expects the chill-resistant version to be on the market in about a year.
"It's going to be an Italian basil that looks good, that tastes and smells great and has chilling resistance," he said.
Break out the pasta.