In this edition of the herb series, I’m going to be talking about a major player in the culinary scene, one that just about everyone is familiar with and stars in a slew of dishes, basil. It isn’t referred to as the “King of Herbs” for nothing. But we’ll get into that in a few…
Basil has had plenty of time to establish its big shot position in the food world. It has been cultivated for over 5,000 years, and although its exact place of origin is a bit of a question mark, one of the oldest agreed-upon locations is in India. It is now grown in many countries around the world, and is most well-known for its role in Italian cuisine. it shouldn’t be forgotten however, that it also holds a high place in the dishes of both India and many countries in Southeast Asia. Throughout its history, its cultural significance has varied by the area in which it was used. The Portugese, Indians, Egyptians, and other African nations revered the Ocimum basilicum for differing reasons, everything from signs of affection to the folk-medicine theory that ingesting the plant would stave off the effects of a scorpion bite. Other societies, on the other hand, considered the herb something to be avoided; the ancient Greeks considered it a symbol of hatred. Which is ironic, because I would never hate anyone who gave me basil. Thankfully, that notion seems to have passed, and a host of varieties of basil have been cultivated for use in various types of cooking.
There are other promising attributes to basil other than its culinary uses. Although no major scientific data has established any major health benefits, a few studies published in reputable medical journals in the early 2000s did have some good things to report. Basil happens to be an excellent source of Vitamin K (98% of the DRV, in fact). I mentioned it briefly in my post on healthy vision, but as it turns out it’s also essential for your cardiovascular health, via the reduction of free-radical damage. It can give you a boost of Vitamin A as well, providing some fantastic anti-bacterial benefits. And basil oil has also been shown to be an anti-inflammatory on a similar level to ibuprofen. All that health support, and it tastes good too. Splendid!
So let’s say you want to grow some basil for yourself (it is, after all, best used in its fresh form.) The good news is, you don’t have to be a seasoned pro to grow basil. It’s a great little plant for container gardening, so you don’t need a ton of space, although planting them in a fairly large pot is recommended. Most common varieties of basil are annuals (and in the same family as mint), although some have been cultivated into perennial status. The number one enemy of basil is cold weather – you should plant the herb at least two weeks after the last frost in the spring and be prepared to cover the plant in case of any lingering cold snaps afterward. Basil is a hot weather plant and for the most part enjoys full sunshine, although if you live in the deep south or southwest of the US, you should probably give it a little shade in the afternoon. If you are just harvesting small amounts at a time for recipes, pinch off a few leaves as you need them (never cut the stems. It will cause the plant to start flowering and stop producing leaves.) If however you are a hardcore pesto-producing basil freak (I salute you), you may want to consider raising several plants. They enjoy moist well-drained soil, and you may want to consider a little fertilizer after you start harvesting, and maybe some mulch to help retain the moisture of the soil. All of the leaves should be harvested well before the first frost in the fall, and while the leaves can be dried, they can also be frozen after being blanched briefly. And of course there’s the pesto method of preservation I mentioned above! If you’re still unsure about your ability to properly raise basil, I am willing to attest that I have no green thumb whatsoever and my little basil plant has exploded into a full-blown yummy monster all by itself; all I had to do was water it regularly and leave it in direct sunlight. To get more details on growing basil, go check out Bonnie Plants. They have lots of helpful information.
Enough about growing it. let’s talk about eating it! While basil can be a little pungent for most people, I am a huge fan. The scent of Genovese basil is second only to rosemary as my favorite, and I love the “green” fresh taste it brings to dishes. It’s almost like a bitter or licorice-style flavor, and it compliments just about whatever you want to throw it into; salads, pasta sauces, as a garnish on a sandwich or in a pasta salad, in cocktails and even ice cream. And of course other varieties express other flavor profiles; Thai basil is somewhat lighter with a bit of a lemony essence. It’s terrific in many Asian dishes, and also good mixed in with other greens for a standard salad as well. But I think my number one basil destination will always be Caprese Salad. I think about it toward the end of every summer, when tomatoes start to come into their full flourish where I live. It is simply refreshing, and I am a huge fan of every ingredient; the fresh mozzarella, the tomato, the balsamic…it’s an uncontrollable craving. But enough about my unhealthy attachment to cheese and vinegar – that’s another post! If you’d like a great recipe to get your basil fix, check out this one from Saveur.
And that’s about all I have to say about that. I hope this post was an interesting one, and maybe you learned a few things you didn’t already know about this ubiquitous herb. So give it a try before the season is over; in my opinion, it is a summer flavor that is not to be missed. Happy eating!