Tuesday, November 24, 2009


About Basil
There are many different types of basil, however the succulent, large-leaved, sweet basil is by far the most popular variety for culinary use. Basil's refreshing, clove and anise-like aroma conjures p memories of summer, hardly surprising when one considers how this warmthloving annual thrives in the heat and expires with the first chills of winter. Sweet basil plants grow to around 20 in. (50 cm) high and even more in ideal conditions. The stems are tough, grooved and square with dark-green, oval, crinkly leaves from 1 in. (30 mm) to 4 in. (100 mm) long. The tiny, white, long-stamened flowers should be nipped off to prevent the plant from going to seed and finishing its life cycle. This will also encourage thicker foliage and hence more abundant harvests for the basil-loving cook.

The taste of sweet basil is far less pungent than the permeating, heady aroma of the freshly picked leaves would suggest, thus large quantities can be used with safety. Dried sweet basil leaves are quite different from the fresh, and although the fragrant, fresh-smelling top notes disappear upon drying, a concentration of volatile oils in the cells of the dehydrated leaves give a pungent clove and allspice bouquet. This is matched by a faint rninty, peppery flavor that is ideal for long, slow cooking.

Other varieties of basil are bush basil which has small leaves 1/3 -1/2 in. (10-15 mm) long. It grows to about 6 in. (150 mm) high and the foliage has a less pungent aroma and lower flavor-strength than sweet basil. The two types of purple basil, serrated leaved 'purple ruffle' and the smoother 'dark opal basil' mainly grown for decorative purposes, have a mild pleasing flavor and look attractive in salads and as a garnish. 'Hairy basil' or 'Thai basil' has slender oval leaves with deep serrations on the edges and a more camphorous aroma than sweet basil. Although the seeds of this variety (referred to as subja in India) have no distinct flavor, they swell and become gelatinous in water and are used in Indian and Asian sweets, drinks and as an appetite suppressant.

Holy basil or tulsi as it is called in India, has mauve-pink flowers, is perennial and is lightly lemon scented. Cinnamon basil has a distinct cinnamon aroma, with long, erect flower heads. It is also an attractive plant and its leaves complement Asian dishes. The perennial camphor basil (O. kilimanscharicum) is not used in cooking, but its distinctive camphorous aroma makes it a pleasant decorative herb to have in the garden.

Preparation and Storage
Avoid buying fresh basil that is wilted or has black marks on the leaves. Bunches of fresh basil may be frozen and stored successfully for a few weeks.The best method is to place a small bunch in a clean plastic supermarket bag, blow some air in to inflate it, and place in the freezer where it will not be squashed.You will find it quite convenient to then nip offjust a few of these frozen leaves when they are required. Another effective way to preserve basil is to pick the larger leaves, wash and dry them and then place each leaf in a wide-mouthed shallow jar, sprinkling a little salt on each leaf as you stack them up in the container. Fill the jar with olive oil so all leaves are covered, screw the lid on firmly and keep in the refrigerator. Depending upon the quality of the fresh leaves, basil stored this way should last up to three months before any blackening occurs.

Dried basil is dark green in color and is readily available from food stores, however as for all other dried herbs, only buy dried basil in good quality packaging to retain maximum flavour and store in a cool dark place.

Culinary Uses
Basil's pervading, clove-like aroma makes it such an ideal complement to tomatoes that it is often referred to as 'the tomato herb'. It is interesting to note how flavors across the herb and spice spectrum can have similar attributes, and it is often these degrees of commonality that give us an indication of the breadth of uses they can encompass. Cloves also happen to go well with tomatoes and there are many commercially made tomato sauces and canned foods such as Scandinavian herrings with tomato, that contain either cloves or the very clove-tasting spice, allspice.

Basil also complements other vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini, squash and spinach. When added within the last half an hour of cooking, basil enhances the flavor of vegetable and legume (split peas, lentil) soups. Most salads, especially those with tomato, benefit greatly from the addition of fresh basil.

Basil goes well with poultry when used in stuffing, is included in soups and stews and added to sauces and gravies. Fish brushed with olive oil, dusted with freshly ground black pepper, wrapped in foil with a few basil leaves and barbecued, is a simple and effective way to enjoy this versatile herb. Basil is used in pâtés and terrines, where its volatile notes will help counteract the richness of liver and game. A tasty vinegar to have on hand for making salad dressings is made by placing a dozen or more fresh, washed basil leaves in a bottle of white wine vinegar and leaving it for a few weeks.

There are countless species of basil - Richters' catalogue lists 37 - but the enduring winner in the kitchen is Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum), with its close relative Genovese Basil being preferred for pesto. Pesto, the ultimate basil experience, is made from basil, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic, salt and oil and is one of the most effective ways to store and use basil. Pesto can be the basis of a quick meal when tossed through freshly cooked pasta and is an excellent spread on fresh crusty bread, topped with slices of fresh tomato and washed down with a glass of good Shiraz.

The lemon basils, with their citrus tang, are excellent for desserts, soups, tea, lemonade and for cooking with fish and chicken.

Asian cultures have their own species and uses of basil. Fancy purple or opal basil adds herbaceous character to stir-fries and stocks all over Thailand. A chiffonade of fresh leaves can perk up Asian soups, and frequently flowering buds that show particular pungency are used to impart impressively strong herbal character. With the Asian affinity for unusual textures, there is even a coconut-based drink with black basil seeds for a slight peppery kick.

Cinnamon Basil does not cook well, but contributes an interesting piquancy to stewed tomatoes. Thai basil, with its pronounced anise-licorice aroma and flavoury is excellent with green curries and stir-fry dishes.

Basil leaves are best used whole or torn; most cooks advising against cutting the leaves with a knife, as this tends to dissipate the aroma. To make dried basil taste a little closer to fresh when putting on grilled tomatoes, zucchini or eggplant, mix 1 tsp (5 mL) of basil with 1/2 tsp (2 mL) each of lemon juice, water and oil and 1/8 tsp (0.5 mL) of ground cloves. Let stand for a few minutes, then spread onto halved tomatoes or slices of eggplant before grilling.

Health Benefits of Basil
Rich in flavonoids, basil is an herb that is effective in preventing cell damage from both radiation and oxygen. Two of the main flavonoids are "orientin" and "vicenin". Experiments have shown that these flavonoids, though, did not provide protection for tumors treated with radiation therapy.

The volatile oils of basil, inhibit bacterial growth. These oils include, estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene. The essential oils from basil have shown an ability to combat some pathogenic bacterium that have become resistant to treatment from antibiotics. A solution containing just 1% of the oil of basil can be used to rinse vegetables to kill infectious bacteria that cause diarrhea. Some dietitians recommend adding basil to salad dressings in order to help ensure safety when eating salads.

Basil also exhibits anti-inflammatory properties, making it a good food to consume by people who have problems with arthritis. It does this in a manner similar to aspirin. An oil in basil called eugenol blocks the activity of an enzyme in the body called cyclooxygenase. The enzyme would normally cause swelling.

Basil is a source for Vitamin K, iron, calcium, vitamin A, manganese, magnesium, vitamin C, and potassium. It is good for the heart, because it helps to prevent build-up in the arteries and fights free radicals. The magnesium helps blood vessels to relax which increases blood circulation.

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