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Friday, November 1, 2013

Sweet Basil


Sweet Basil

"Sweet basil" or just "basil" is a culinary herb sometimes known as St. Joseph's wort.  It's Latin name is  "Ocimum basilicum".  Basil is native to India and other tropical regions of Asia where it has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years.  The word "basil" comes from the Greek ("basileus") meaning "king".  In recent times basil has become one of the most recognizable herbs since pesto ( a mixture of basil, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese) has become popular.
Basil has a rich and spicy, mildly peppery flavor with a trace of mint and clove.  You will find basil sold fresh or dried.  Unfortunately the dried basil loses most of its flavor.  One teaspoon of dried basil is equivalent to one tablespoon of the fresh basil.  Some sources state there are more than sixty varieties of basil.  The most common "Genovese" basil has a bright and pungent taste.  Other varieties  have  unique tastes such as lemon basil, anise basil, and cinnamon basil which have flavors that subtly reflect their names. 
Growing up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn I remember my maternal grandmother always had some "basilico" growing in the garden.  On seventy-seventh street  many of the houses had front yards back then.  My grandfather used to grow the most beautiful roses and he had trellises on which they grew.  It was beautiful.  It was in that garden that the basil grew.  There was also a subway station on the corner and people coming home in the evening would sometimes stop and pick one of the roses.  I'll bet some of the Italians would also help themselves to some basil.
There has been much research into the health benefits from essential oils found in basil.  In vitro studies have established that compounds in basil oil have potent antioxidant, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties and potential for use in treating cancer.  Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K and a very good source of iron, calcium and vitamin A.  It is a good source of dietary fiber, manganese, magnesium, vitamin C and potassium. 
Basil is commonly used fresh in cooked recipes , added at the last moment.  Basil is the ultimate complement to tomatoes, but also pairs well with garlic and olives.   Most other herbs tend to overpower basil's flavor and aroma but oregano is most often used with basil.  Other good combinations are rosemary and sage.  Basil stimulates the appetite and helps curb flatulence.   Basil pesto is most often served with pasta.
Choose basil that looks vibrant with deep green color.  Avoid dark spots or yellowing as well as wilting.  Basil can be kept in the refrigerator for short periods wrapped in slightly damp paper towel.  It can be frozen whole or chopped in airtight containers or in ice cube trays covered with water or stock.
Basil plants are readily available at your local supermarket.  They like the warm weather and will do well if kept on the porch.  Just remember to water frequently and pinch off the ends when they begin to flower. 
So, eat up, enjoy, I'll show you how.

Simple but good:

Basil Pesto:
4 cups packed basil leaves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 teaspoon  salt
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
Place all ingredients except olive oil and Parmesan cheese in a blender.  Blend while adding the olive oil until completely blended.  Stir in the Parmesan cheese.