Nothing heralds summer like basil, one of the most aromatic and evocative of herbs. Its floral, slightly spicy fragrance instantly brings to mind classic Italian dishes such as pesto, caprese salads, and pasta, but for me, I love it in a very different way—as a salad green in its right. In fact, I’m so obsessed with it that it adorns my food almost like a condiment, sprinkled over whatever I am eating or as a roll-up with thinly sliced ham or just about anything else. The Vietnamese, who eat basil and many other fresh herbs literally by the pound with their pho and a multitude of other dishes, have the right idea.
A beloved herb that is related to mint, basil is popular in Mediterranean and Asian dishes. It thrives in hot, humid weather, disliking even the coolness of spring and early summer. In northern climates, basil acts as an annual, but in its native tropical climate, it grows year-round. Numerous types of basil grow around the world, including lemon basil, African blue basil (which smells like camphor), and licorice basil. There are the large-leaved Italian types and the smaller-leaved Asian basils that are popular in Thai and aforementioned Vietnamese cuisines. Some basils are so sensitive to regional microclimates that plants of the same species grown in different locales produce distinctly different-tasting pestos.
A beloved kitchen herb for at least 4,000 years, basil originated in India, where it was revered and used in religious occasions and funerals. The herb later migrated to the Mediterranean through the famous Oriental spice routes. Ancient Greeks and Romans associated the plant with death and love, respectively. It was favored in England in the 16th century for a time, but its popularity eventually died out there, although it remains an essential ingredient in that country’s famed turtle soup.
Basil is an exceptionally rich source of vitamin K, but it also has manganese, copper, and vitamin A. Two tablespoons of the chopped herb contain a mere single calorie. Basil has many medicinal properties and is well known as a remedy for digestive upsets, and basil tea is said to dispel flatulence. It is often used to treat headaches and anxiety, and its aroma alone is reputed to have calming properties.
If possible, basil should be purchased in fresh bunches (usually these are plentiful in season, at farmers markets, or in larger natural foods supermarkets). This way you can see the condition of the leaves. Try to avoid getting basil in those tiny, flat plastic boxes; these scanty sprigs tend to be well past their prime and outrageously expensive. Avoid basil that is wilted or has large brown patches on its leaves; the darkened areas affect the flavor.
Store unwashed basil in a plastic bag in the refrigerator vegetable crisper, but for no longer than a few days.
For those long winter days when you crave a taste of summer, you’ll be happy to know that you can freeze basil, either pureed with olive oil and garlic, or in leaf form (just be forewarned that the leaves will turn brown). If you don’t think you will use all of your fresh basil before it goes bad, chop it finely, mix it into a paste using ⅓ cup of olive oil or cooled melted butter to every 2 cups of herbs, and then freeze the resulting mixture in ice cube trays. To thaw, simply pop out a few cubes into a strainer and let the oil melt away, or just drop them frozen into sauces or soups.
In Romania, when a man accepts a sprig of basil from a woman, he is officially engaged. In Mexico, basil is carried around in the hope of recapturing a lover’s roving eye. In some cultures, basil symbolizes hatred; in others it is associated with scorpions.
What Can You Do with Basil?
Basil has a famous affinity for tomatoes and cheese; a favorite Italian summer salad combines basil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, rounds of fresh mozzarella cheese, and vine-ripened tomatoes.
Substitute basil for parsley in meat loaf; it adds a marvelously savory, perfumed flavor.
If you are a huge basil fan, tear off the leaves from the stems and add liberal quantities to tossed salads, just like a salad green. Leaves of fresh mint and a few thin shreds of raw ginger along with the basil make a powerful flavor combination in a salad.
Substitute fresh basil for half of the spinach in some recipes.
Use basil pesto to add flavor to a salmon loaf.
Chop a few leaves into egg and cheese dishes to add flavor and color.
Substitute basil for parsley in the filling for deviled eggs.
Place a few leaves in sandwiches, like lettuce.
The uses of basil pesto are numerous: for spreading on ham sandwiches, mixing into mashed potatoes, stirring into tomato or bean soup, dabbing on salmon, marinating meat kebabs, saucing pizza, adding to stuffed eggs, mixing with salad oil and using as a dressing…
For an incredibly delicious recipe that contains an unexpected twist on the usual pesto, check out Kahumana Café Pasta with Macadamia Nut-Pesto Sauce.
Picture credits, from top to bottom: By Marco Mayer, thatreec, and Witold Krasowski, all of Adobe Stock.