The savory, verdant flavor of basil is memorable: I still remember the first time I tasted it. It transformed an otherwise plain tomato salad into an extraordinary taste sensation. Thanks to that introduction to this amazing herb, the Italian restaurant serving up this little bit of heaven still stands out in my memory. Basil accompanies tomatoes beautifully—both in the garden and on the plate—and it’s the star in traditional pesto, but this aromatic and delicious plant has even more to offer than its striking flavor.
Recipes with Basil
A Brief History of Basil
Most people associate basil with Italian cooking, so it may come as a surprise to learn that basil was first grown in India, East Asia and Africa. It has since spread throughout the world and plays a prominent role in Thai, Vietnamese and, of course, Italian cuisine.
Its name originates from an old Greek word, basilikon, which means “royal” and reflects the ancient Greek reverence for the herb they held sacred. In India, basil is considered a symbol of hospitality. In Italy, it symbolizes love.
Although basil comes in many varieties, they all generally need the same care. Basils are sun-lovers that thrive in full sun and well-drained soil enriched with compost or manure. Basil is not at all cold-hardy, so plants should be started indoors. Before planting it outdoors, wait until all signs of frost have passed. Although it loves heat, basil needs plenty of water. It will also grow indoors if given adequate light.
Basil plants grow 1 to 2 feet tall. They can vary in taste depending on variety, with flavor notes ranging from cinnamon and clove to lemon or lime. Leaf color also varies from bright green to dark purple by variety. Try classic, deep green ‘Genovese’ for classic pesto; purple ‘Red Rubin’ for its spice; and light green ‘Lemon’ basil for the incredible aroma. Pinch off the edible flower heads regularly (add them to salads or stir-fries) to encourage the plant to put its energy into growing thick foliage.
Although its flavor is strong, basil is versatile in the kitchen. Try its leaves in soups, salads, stews, pesto, pasta and tomato sauce; alongside tomatoes, peppers and eggplant; and in coconut milk-based curries. It is best to add the fresh leaves just before eating as they lose their robust flavor and aroma after heating. Harvest the leaves any time after the plant looks like it can spare a few; however, they bruise easily so be careful when harvesting. While the temptation to overharvest exists, try to leave at least a few leaves on your plant at any time.
Most basils are prolific producers. To preserve basil, most cooks prefer freezing, as dried basil tastes very different from fresh. It’s easy to capture the fresh flavor of basil by puréeing the leaves in a food processor in a base of water or olive oil (not both) and pouring the mixture into ice cube trays. Once frozen, bag the basil ice cubes for future use in cooked soups, stews and sauces. You might also want to dry whole basil leaves to make tea. Once the plant is mature, you can dry the leaves by cutting the stalk at the base of the plant and hanging it upside down for a few days or until the leaves are completely dry.
Uses for Basil
Pain reliever: Eugenol, one of the beneficial compounds in basil, has been studied extensively for its ability to fight pain by blocking cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes—the same mechanism aspirin and ibuprofen use to alleviate pain. To try basil as a home remedy for a headache or sore muscles, brew basil tea by adding a teaspoon of dried basil or a tablespoon of fresh basil leaves to a cup of boiled water and letting it steep for 10 minutes. Strain and drink.
Breath refresher: James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy, recommends basil to freshen breath. Simply chew on a fresh basil leaf or drink the basil tea mentioned above.
Infection fighter: Basil has been shown to have excellent anti-infectious qualities. Research in the journal Molecules found that natural volatile oils in basil inhibited multiple drug-resistant strains of E. coli bacteria. (E. coli causes cramps, diarrhea and vomiting linked to food poisoning.) Scientists demonstrated that an extract of basil seeds were effective in the laboratory against tuberculosis-causing bacteria, according to a recent preliminary study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Ward off warts: Basil’s antiviral compounds go to work when the crushed leaves are applied to warts, according to Duke’s research. To treat warts, he recommends crushing a fresh leaf or two, placing it on the wart, and covering with a bandage. Change the compress daily for five to seven days.
Balance blood pressure: According to Duke’s research, basil contains six natural compounds that reduce high blood pressure, making it a great regular dietary addition for anyone suffering from the condition.
Cook away cancer: Exciting new research published in the journal Molecular Medicine found that an extract of basil halted ovarian cancer cell growth. Eating basil on a regular basis may help reduce your chances of developing some cancers.