Food & Drinks

Thymeless Tips: Rediscovering Basil

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Thymeless Tips: Rediscovering Basil
Photo Cookbookman17/Flickr

Basil is considered holy in India, where it is called tulsi. It is not used as a spice, instead prayer beads are carved out of its root   

Treasured for its aroma, basil has long been a symbol of love in Italy, the country that famously wed the herb to tomatoes, which were brought over from the new world. Although Italians have found a million and one uses for basil, the herb originated in India and is used around the world by many different cultures. How did the perfume of basil conquer the world? Let’s discover basil’s history.

Basil is native to India and traveled west with Arab spice merchants.  The herb gets its name from the ancient Greek word ‘’basilik,’’ with referred to a deadly mythological creature.  Although the Greeks were initially suspicious of basil, they later considered it a royal herb, as did the Romans. Basil was revered by European royalty, who used the herb in their baths and as medicine.

The herb found a home in Italy, where a pot on a windowsill once meant that a suitor was welcome in the home. In Romania, receiving basil from your love interest meant you were engaged. In Mexico, it was tradition to fill your pockets with basil in hopes of receiving the eternal love of the man or woman you had your heart set on.

There are more than 60 varieties of basil. The most common variety is sweet basil, that’s the kind you find at the supermarket. But many varieties exists, including lemon basil, anise basil, clove basil, cinnamon basil, Thai basil and opal basil, which has a lovely purple color. Basil is a member of the mint family and is high in volatile oils, which contribute to its lovely aroma.

Basil is best when used fresh. When cooking, add fresh basil toward the end because it wilts quickly and loses its aroma. Dried basil, which is more pungent, is added at the beginning of the cooking process because it benefits from simmering for long periods of time. It is best to tear fresh basil with your hands. When cutting fresh basil, make sure you use a very sharp knife to prevent the immediate wilting of the herb. 

Basil makes the perfect companion to salads, as the Italians know well. In Italy, basil is paired with mozzarella and tomato, pounded into pesto, a sauce for pasta made with olive oil and pine nuts that originated in the city of Genoa. There are as many varieties of pesto as there are cooks in Italy. In nearby France, basil is used in pistou, a sauce with garlic and tomatoes (no pine nuts) that is added to soups. The Indian holy basil is used in religious ceremonies while Thai basil is used in Southeast Asian cooking, where its clove-like flavor pairs well with spices.

How to Buy
If you love basil, consider buying a pot to ensure you can enjoy the herb year round. Basil thrives in the summer time but if kept indoors by a sunny windowsill in the winter it will do well. Select fresh basil that is abundant, evenly green, aromatic and free of any blemishes. If buying dry, consider the fact that dry basil has a more intense flavor than when it is fresh. Purchase dry basil in small batches and add at the beginning of your cooking process.

Basil is a very delicate herb and must be handled accordingly. To refrigerate, wrap fresh basil leaves in a damp paper towel then wrap in plastic. It should keep well for up to a week if you replace the damp paper towel every two days. You can also preserve basil by layering the tender leaves with coarse salt and storing in an airtight container. Dry basil can be stored for up to six months. Afte that, it will begin losing its aromatic compounds. Basil does not keep well in the freezer by itself. If you would like to freeze basil, chop it finely then combine with olive oil and freeze in an ice tray.

Basil’s connection with love may have a scientific base. The herb has been found to lower stress levels when its aroma is inhaled. Medical studies have shown basil to be effective in lowering cholesterol and fighting cancer and diabetes. The essential oils in basil may also be effecting against acne and may help speed the healing of wounds, this is all according to studies cited inHealing Spices, a book written by Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD and Debora Yost.

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