Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a tender, annual herb that captures the essence of a long, hot summer. A member of the mint family, basil has a distinctive spicy flavor with overtones of anise (a bit like licorice) and cloves. It is one of the most popular culinary herbs and one of the easiest to grow.
Because the fragrance is so heavenly, basil is often added to colognes like Pi by Givenchy and Eau Savage by Christian Dior. It is a popular addition to sachets and soaps. It is the predominant flavor in the Sweet Basil Martini at the Laughing Seed Cafe in Asheville, N.C. The martini is made with fresh basil and handmade Rain organic vodka produced by the Sazerac Company of New Orleans.
Basil loves to partner with fish, poulty, pizza and vegetables, especially tomatoes. Who doesn’t love fresh basil tossed with cooked pasta or layered with seasonal, vine-ripened tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella? Pesto is a classic Mediterranean sauce with many uses (see below). The ingredients are fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic and Parmigiano.
Have you tried a fresh tomato-basil sandwich? It is made with sliced quality bread like Pepperidge Farm spread with good mayonnaise. Fill with slices of vine-ripened tomatoes layered with fresh basil leaves. Add a sprinkle of black pepper, if you like.
There are several popular varieties of basil like Genovese, the hardy large leaf Italian basil and more delicate varieties like lemon basil, scented cinnamon basil and purple basil. “Crispum” or lettuce-leaf basil has large crinkled leaves that are nice tossed into green salads.
Thai basil (Bai Horapah) is a special favorite that I like to use in dishes from Southeast Asian and Italy. The herb is also sometimes called “Siam Queen” or “Queen of Sheba”. Its mild, yet distinct anise flavor makes it a wonderful addition to Thai curries, soups, chutneys, marinades and stir-fry dishes. The award-winning Duangrats in Falls Church Va. is one of my favorite restaurants and serves CHICKEN HORAPA, which is sliced breast of chicken sautÃ©ed in roasted chili sauce with horapa basil and wok-tossed peppered egg noodles. The dish is devine!
There are other types of Thai basil but Bai Horapah has dense 1/2 inch leaves that cluster around purple stems. It grows about 10 to 12 inches high and about 10 inches wide. The pretty flowers can be used as a garnish. In Thailand, even the tiny black seeds from the dried plant are utilized and added to beverages. Long-blooming and easy to care for, Bai Horapah is also valued as an attractive ornamental bedding plant. Plant it in loamy soil that has good drainage with lots of sunlight. The showy dark purple blooms will attract butterflies and bees to your garden. It is great for container gardening too!
When sowing any type of basil seeds, plant in fertile soil 1/2 inch deep and about one inch apart in the full sun. Give the basil plenty of space in the garden and keep moist. When the plants are 6 to 8 inches tall with blooms beginning to appear, pinch them off to encourage branching (for a bushier plant) and to extend the harvest. The flavor of the herb tastes best before the plant begins to flower. Basil is very sensitive to frost.
When cooking with basil, shred or chop the leaves lightly without mushing in order to keep the colors and flavor oils intact. To preserve the flavor, stir it in during the last few minutes of cooking. Basil stems can be kept in a small vase of water for a few days. The taste of fresh basil is incomparable – don’t’ substitute the dried herb. Chopped basil leaves can be frozen in ice cube trays with water. The color will darken, but the flavor is still quite good in simmered dishes like sauces and soups.
Check with your local nursery for plants and seeds. The seeds can be purchased in many gardening catalogues.
A few sprigs of parsley help preserve the green color of the sauce. Lightly toast the pine nuts in a skillet to enhance the flavor. Watch carefully and don’t allow them to change color too much.
1/3 cup fresh basil leaves, torn if large
Few sprigs of fresh parsley
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
3/4 cup freshly-grated Parmigiano Reggiano (or with half Romano)
Pinch of sea salt, or to taste
Rinse basil and parsley leaves in cool water; pat dry with paper towels. Put into a blender container. Add garlic and olive oil; process briefly to blend. Add the pine nuts, cheese and salt. Scrape out of container and use at once or refrigerate 2 or 3 days in a jar with an airtight lid. Pesto can be frozen. This makes enough pesto for about one pound of cooked pasta.
Ways to use Pesto
- Dice potatoes and saute in olive oil until crispy. Stir in pesto, to taste.
- Spread on thin slices of crusty hearth bread before toasting. (bruschetta)
- Stir into white bean soup or bean dip.
- Stir into mayonnaise or sour cream for dips, sandwich spreads and sauces.
- Add to vinaigrette for salad dressings and vegetable marinades.
- Spread on pizza.
- Stir into your favorite cooked pasta.
- Use in cheese tortas.
- Spread over sauteed chicken or turkey cutlets then top with melted cheese.
- Stir into ground beef for burgers or meatballs.
- Stir into potato or pasta salads.
- Spread over lasagna noodles.
~Marinated Zucchini Salad with Fresh Basil and Mint~
8 medium-sized zucchini squash, rinsed, dried
Virgin olive oil, as needed for frying
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
Ricotta salata, crumbled (or feta)
Freshly grated pecorino (or Parmigiano)
Fresh basil leaves, torn
Fresh mint leaves, torn
Juice of 1 lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Slice squash about 1/3-inch thick. Heat 3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet; cook squash in batches until tender and golden brown on both sides. Season with salt and pepper. In a medium shallow serving dish, layer cooked zucchini slices with the ricotta salata, pecorino, basil leaves and mint leaves. Drizzle on a bit of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice as you build the layers. Finish the top with some of the grated cheese and a final drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. Serve at once or let the salad sit at room temperature for a couple of hours for the flavors to develop. If chilled, let salad come back to room temperature.
Ricotta Salata is a semi-firm salted ricotta made from sheep’s milk. Usually only the rind is salted. Popular in Sicily and Sardinia. Feta can be substituted.
Pecorino Cheese is a sheep’s milk cheese from the Rome area. The cheese matures in 8 to 12 months. During this time, it develops its characteristic sharp flavor.
~Sweet Basil Martini~
2.5 to 3 ounces Rain organic vodka
1 squeeze of juice from an organic lemon
One splash of dry vermouth
A handful of organic basil leaves and stems, rinsed, patted dry, torn
Skewered organic cherry tomatoes, for garnish
Pour all ingredients (except cherry tomatoes) into a martini shaker with ice then shake hard. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with cherry tomatoes.
Adapted slightly from Kristin Welch, bartender of the Laughing Seed Cafe.
Interesting Fact!!! – According to Verve Magazine, scientists reported that the antioxidant properties of martinis are enhanced by a shaking action in a 1999 study in the British Medical Journal.
(“Shaken, Not Stirred: a Bio-analytical Study of the Antioxidant Activities of Martinis“). Shaken martinis are suppose to have twice the antioxidants of those stirred. This drink has been dubbed a ‘healthy’ “salad in a glass!”