For the Love of Basil
Sweet basil was the first herb I grew in my early gardening days. I remember the excitement and love I felt for that tender, little plant. At the time, it symbolized a transition – one small step in being more connected to my food and an elevation of my culinary activities. Since then, I’ve never had a summer without a basil plant (or three…) and now sow seeds in pots year-round.
There is no mistaking that sweet, bright, fresh, green, licorice-like aroma and flavor – inviting that love of basil within so many of us! This extremely popular herb is part of the mint family and is used in cuisines across the world. According to food historians, its roots trace back over 5,000 years to India, and today is commonly grown in Asia, Morocco, Egypt, France, Italy, other Mediterranean countries, Hungary, and the United States.
WHY I LIKE IT
- It is pleasantly and enticingly fragrant – it’s is a mood lifter!
- It adds interest, complexity, and brightness to so many dishes – salads or whole-grains, soups, curries, stir-fries, tagines and other stews, beverages, jams, jellies, and desserts.
- The essential oils in fresh basil provide an unexpected number of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are anti-inflammatory and support good health.
- It is readily available in grocery stores year-round and at farmers’ markets in the summer season.
- It is an easy and fun herb to grow and can be done both outdoors and indoors, adding a breath of freshness during the cold weather months.
SELECT and STORE
When selecting fresh basil, choose leaves with vibrant color showing no brown spots or signs of decay and a strong, fresh basil aroma.
Once picked, fresh basil leaves wilt and turn dark brown or black quickly. To keep that delicious fresh herb flavor as long as possible, try one of these methods:
FLOWER METHOD: Trim the ends of the stems, then place them into a glass or jar with water, just as you would a bouquet of fresh flowers. Keep the leaves out of the water as much as possible. Store this “basil bouquet” in the refrigerator. The leaves should stay green and vibrant for up to one week.
LEAFY GREENS METHOD: Pick the leaves off of the stems and place them in a single layer on a clean, slightly damp kitchen towel or paper towel. Roll the towel up around the leaves and place it into a plastic bag or bee’s wax wrap. This method should keep the basil leaves fresh for slightly less than one week.
FREEZER METHODS: To extend the great fresh taste of basil for longer than one week, try freezing it. Here are two methods –
- Option #1 – Start by blanching the basil leaves – placing them into boiling water for 10 – 15 seconds, then plunging them into an ice water bath to stop the cooking process. Blanching locks in the color and the flavor. Next, drain the basil leaves thoroughly and place them into a blender. Add a very small amount of olive oil and blend into a puree. For the most convenience later, scoop the puree into ice cube trays and freeze until solid. Transfer the cubes into re-sealable plastic bags or another tightly sealed freezer container.
- Option #2 – Chop the fresh basil leaves into small pieces and place them into ice cube trays. Pour water or broth over the leaves to fill the cube sections. Freeze until solid and transfer the frozen cubes to a re-sealable plastic bag or another tightly sealed freezer container.
The frozen cubes will last for up to one year and can be used in soups, stews, or sauces, or when sauteing vegetables or proteins for a burst of fresh basil flavor.
Basil leaves can also be dried in the sun or air-dried, or in a very low heat oven, food dehydrator, or microwave. The drying process intensifies the flavor so less is required in cooking, although the essential oils will evaporate and no longer be present. Store dried basil in an air-tight container in a cool, dark place. The flavor of dried basil should remain lively for up to 6 months, after which it will begin to lessen.
When growing Sweet or Common basil, pick it before it begins to flower for the best flavor. Thai or Holy basil can be picked with small flowers attached. To extend the life of the basil plant, pinch the flowers off as soon as they appear.
Can you believe that there are over 60 varieties of basil? The flavor imparted from various types includes sweet, licorice, cloves, cinnamon, lemon, and thyme, to name a few. Five common varieties that appear at grocery stores, farmers markets, and garden stores include:
- Sweet Basil (Common Basil or Genovese)
This is what people tend to think of when they think of basil. It’s the most common variety found in grocery stores with the most recognizable “basil” aroma. It’s sweet, fresh, and lightly licorice flavor nicely compliments Italian and Mediterranean recipes.
- Purple Basil
Beautifully dark purple leaves make this basil highly attractive while offering a less sweet, light clove scent and flavor. It is often used as an eye-catching garnish in Italian and Thai cuisine.
- Lemon Basil
This basil possesses the same flavor characteristics as Sweet basil with an added twist of lemon. Use it in any recipe when a slightly citrus or acidic taste is desired.
- Thai Basil
Commonly used in Asian cuisine, this lovely basil has smaller, darker green leaves, sweet flavor with a bit of anise. Use it liberally!
- Holy Basil (Tulsi Basil)
This variety of basil holds prominence in the Hindu religion as a symbol of the goddess Tulsi and is commonly used for medicinal purposes due to the high concentration of essential oils. In culinary applications, it is a bit more bitter than the other varieties but works well in Indian teas and rice dishes.
Basil pairs well with chicken, pork, fish and seafood, eggs, tofu, beans and lentils, vegetables, fruit, and other herbs such as thyme, rosemary, marjoram, parsley and oregano. Any variety of basil can be blended into pesto, steeped or added to tea, sparkling or still water, lemonade or other fruit juices, jams and jelly recipes, or incorporated into desserts.
Sweet and Purple basil are particularly nice with fresh tomatoes, cooked tomato-based dishes, soups, stews, fresh vegetable and whole-grain salads, pizza, pasta, and creamy dishes. Lemon, Thai, and Holy basil compliment Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and other Asian curries, stir-fries, soups, and salads.
- When using fresh basil, add it near the end of the cooking time or as a garnish. If added early in the cooking process, fresh basil may impart a bitter flavor.
- Dried basil should be added early in the cooking process as it requires liquid to rehydrate and extract its flavor.
- In general, use a ratio of 1:3 for dried basil to fresh basil. For example, use 1 teaspoon dried in place of 3 teaspoons chopped fresh basil. If your dried basil has lost some of its flavor power, increase the amount slightly.
What is your favorite way to enjoy fresh basil? Share it in the comments section.
Main photo: Sweet Basil – Jill Wellington on Pixabay
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