In an effort to lower the sodium levels in the food we cook, one may opt to try various other methods of flavoring our food. Herbs are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals and offer more fragrant and tasty flavorings to recipes. The first of several blogs delving into the world of herbs is all about Basil.
Basil has a warm, resinous, clove-like flavor and fragrance. Sweet basil, with it’s wonderful aroma and flavor, is one of the most popular and widely grown herbs in the world. We associate basil with Italian cooking, so you may be surprised to find that many of your favorite Indian and Thai dishes contain basil since it originated in the far eastern countries.
The name “basil” is derived from the old Greek word basilikohn, which means “royal,” reflecting that ancient culture’s attitudes towards an herb that they held to be very noble and sacred. The tradition of reverence of basil has continued in other cultures. In India, basil was cherished as an icon of hospitality, while in Italy, it was a symbol of love.
Basil has round leaves that are oftentimes pointed. They are green in color, although some varieties feature hints of red or purple. Basil looks a little like peppermint, which is not surprising since they belong to the same plant family.
There are more than 60 varieties of basil, all of which differ somewhat in appearance and taste. While the taste of sweet basil is bright and pungent, other varieties also offer unique tastes: lemon basil, anise basil and cinnamon basil all have flavors that subtly reflect their name. But there are many more including Purple Ruffles Basil, Dark Opal Basil, Thai Basil, and Genovese Basil. You can find various types of basil at specialty grocers and sometimes health food stores. If you happen to grow your own herbs and would like to cultivate some of these lesser known basil species pick up Garden Trail’s custom basil blend and plant your own! As for now, let’s just look at information pertaining to the qualities of basic sweet basil.
Basil thrives in hot weather, but behaves as an annual if there is any chance of a frost. Although basil will grow best outdoors, it can be grown indoors in a pot and, like most herbs, will do best on a sun-facing windowsill. It should be kept away from extremely cold drafts, and grows best in strong sunlight (therefore a greenhouse is ideal if available- but what plant doesn’t grow best in greenhouse?). They can, however, be grown in a basement or tight space, under fluorescent lights, which is excellent news for folks living in apartments or small homes.
In sunnier climates such basil will thrive when planted outside. It also thrives over the summertime in the central and northern United States, but dies out when temperatures reach freezing point. It will grow back the next year if allowed to go to seed. It will need regular watering, but not as much attention as is needed in other climates.
If basil leaves have wilted from lack of water, it will recover if watered thoroughly and placed in a sunny location. Fresh basil with a root system acquired from the grocery store will need plenty of water and sunlight. With appropriate tending the small plant should last 5-7 days if not more! Yellow leaves towards the bottom of the plant are an indication that the plant needs more sunlight or less fertilizer so pay close attention.
Once the plant is allowed to flower, it may produce seed pods containing small black seeds which can be saved and planted the following year. Picking the leaves off the plant helps “promote growth”. Where a leaf has been removed, a new stem should form. For more information about basil cultivation please visit HerbGardening.com!
Whenever possible, choose fresh basil over the dried form of the herb since it is superior in flavor. The leaves of fresh basil should look vibrant and be deep green in color. They should be free from darks spots or yellowing.
Basil leaves are best used fresh and added only during the last few minutes of cooking. Its highly fragrant leaves are used as a seasoning herb for a variety of foods but has become ever popular as the main ingredient in pesto, the mixture of basil, pine nuts and parmesan cheese. Check out this simple pesto recipe, or these recipes that include pesto as a main ingredient!
Photo | charleshafner
Finely chopped basil stirred into mayonnaise makes a good sauce for fish. Basil can be used as a garnish for vegetables, chicken and egg dishes. Large lettuce-leaf basil can be stuffed as you would a grape leaf. There are also plenty of recipes on Tasty Planner that include this fragrant herb. Here is a list of all of them, but these are a few of my favorites:
Chicken Breasts with Creamy Basil Sauce- A cream sauce flavored with basil and garlic accompany chicken breasts for this quick and easy meal.
Insalata Caprese- This simple Italian salad includes fresh mozzarella, plum tomatoes, basil and olive oil and is a refreshing summertime treat.
Strawberry Basil lemonade- This refreshing lemonade is excellent alone or mixed with vodka.
Chicken Pesto Pizza- This yummy pizza turns pesto and chicken into a delectable dinner.
Basil doesn’t retain its flavor well when dried. Instead, layer fresh basil between sheets of waxed paper and freeze. The leaves will darken when frozen this way, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well it will retain aroma and flavor. You can also fill ice cube trays with chopped basil, cover with water and freeze. Basil ice cubes are great for soups and stews.
Photo | dianaschnuth
If you do have dried basil, keep it in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place where it will keep fresh for about six months. Basil can be frozen, but doesn’t keep well in the refrigerator. Instead, place the cut stems in water and keep them on the windowsill. Sprigs stored this way will remain fresh a week or more.
Nutritional Information –
2 tsp (3 g) of basil contains about 60% of the daily recommended amount of Vitamin K and about 5% of your iron, calcium, and vitamin A. Research studies on basil have shown unique health-protecting effects in two basic areas: basil’s flavonoids and volatile oils.
The unique array of active constituents called flavonoids found in basil provide protection at the cellular level. Orientin and vicenin are two water-soluble flavonoids that have been of particular interest in basil, and in studies on human white blood cells. These components of basil protect cell structures as well as chromosomes from radiation and oxygen-based damage.
In addition, basil has been shown to provide protection against unwanted bacterial growth. These “anti-bacterial” properties of basil are not associated with its unique flavonoids, but instead with its volatile oils that have various properties that show the effectiveness of basil in restricting the growth of numerous bacteria (including Staphylococcus aureus and E-coli!)
Basil also has been found to have numerous anti-inflammatory effects as well. Want to enrich the taste and cardiovascular health benefits of your pasta sauce? Add a good helping of basil.
For a more in depth look at basil’s health properties please visit The World’s Healthiest Foods website.