Basil has a nickname, “The Royal Herb”, or Saint Joseph’s Wort.
It has been cultivated in India for over 5000 years.
It comes from the greek word Basileus, meaning “king”.
“The royal reference stems from the basil plant being considered a sacred herb in its native India. Sacred India basil was considered a powerful protector and was often planted around temples and laid with the dead. Once known as the Toolsee plant, basil was held by the Hindus to be sacred to all gods with no oblation being considered truly sacred without the inclusion of basil leaves.” – Ourherbgarden.com
The pungent flavor of licorice combined with clove permeates the air when it is first picked. The soft, tender leaves lend themselves well to so many applications. The herb can be added to salads, crushed with pine nuts, oil, salt, and shavings of parmesan cheese to create a classic pesto, or added directly to your Margherita pizza.
Basil is prominent in Mediterranean cooking, although, I know when you think basil, you think Italian. So many times we cut a quick chiffonade and toss it into our tomato sauce, and never give it a second thought as to what else it could be used for.
Varieties of Basil:
There are over 160 varieties cultivated around the world. Most Mediterranean varieties are what we are familiar with; Genovese, Purple Ruffles, Cinnamon, Lemon, and Globe.
Southeastern Asian cultures use purple basil, Thai basil in soups like Pho, or steep the leaves in milk to create interesting flavored ice creams.
Lemon basil has a strong citrus flavor due to a chemical called “citral”. It is widely used in Indonesia served fresh alongside fried fish, raw cabbage, green beans, and cucumbers.
For more information on basil, see Herb Society of America Guide on Basil.
Although basil is delicate, you can preserve the flavor all year long in a few different ways.
Freeze it. Plunge fresh basil leaves in boiling water for no more than two seconds, then shock in ice water immediately. Dry the leaves thoroughly. Place them in a zip-top bag, and freeze. The basil should hold nicely for up to six months.
Dry your basil.
If you have a relatively stable climate area in your home, say a basement, or cellar. Cut the basil at the stems and tie bunches of them together. Find a place in your basement, and hang your basil upside down. The color will turn from a beautiful bright green, when you are using most common Mediterranean varieties to a very dull, army green. The basil might appear almost black.
One of my favorite methods of preserving is to place fresh basil into a blender with extra-virgin olive oil. Puree it until smooth, place in silicon ice trays, freeze until rock hard, and then store them in zip-top bags.