Basil

Ocimum basilicum

USDA nutritional info

Basil is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae or Labiatae. It is native to India and Iran. Basil is useful for treating upset stomachs, ulcers, and gas (brewing it as a tea is a popular method) and has anti-bacterial properties when applied to the skin. It is high in antioxidants and may prevent plaque buildup (in your mouth, your heart, and your brain – it’s all the same plaque!)

Storage: Basil should always be stored dry to prevent the leaves from turning black. A warm-weather crop, fresh basil is also sensitive to cold temperatures. Basil that is to be used within five days should be wrapped in a dry paper towel and kept in an airtight container at about 50 degrees.

Prep: Wash basil in cool water, removing any discolored parts. Shake the water off and gently roll in a towel to dry, or use the salad spinner for a gigantic amount. Typically only the leaves are used, but some people also use the tenderest parts of the stems.  This decision depends on whether you are using the basil fresh or cooked, and how finely you will chop it.

If you’re cutting the basil leaves, they should be sliced across. You can save time by stacking the leaves in an orderly fashion, then rolling the stack into a tube and slicing the tube thinly. This technique is called chiffonade.  If you’re chopping the basil, turn the pile after slicing and cut it again.

Add fresh basil at the end of cooking for maximum flavor.

Preserving: Basil doesn’t dry well (it loses flavor and tastes mostly like hay after drying).

To freeze, mince basil finely with a little bit of oil, then freeze in ice cube trays. Once frozen, pop them out and store the cubes in a plastic bag in the freezer. Each cube is roughly equivalent to one tablespoon of fresh basil.

Some people make pesto and freeze it as a way of preserving excess basil; others prefer the above method as they say the nuts and garlic in pesto don’t freeze well. If you do freeze pesto, ice cube trays or muffin tins create accessible amounts (chipping off useable chunks from a block of frozen pesto is no fun).

You can also preserve basil by layering it in oil. The leaves will darken but it will retain its flavor for months, and when the basil’s gone you’ll have a lovely flavored oil to experiment with.

You can use the stems of basil on their own to infuse oil or vinegar: roughly chop the stems, pack them (not too tightly, so things can move around) into a jar or other container with a lid. Store in a coolish, dark place (a cupboard is fine) and shake every day. After several weeks, strain and use.

The stems are also useful as a flavoring agent in recipes. Treat them like fresh basil, adding them near the end of cooking, but then remove them as you would a bay leaf. You can tie them together or wrap them in cheesecloth to make removal easier.

Recipes:

Add fresh basil to salads or use it as a garnish… say for tomato soup?

Pesto a.k.a. Pistou

Makes 3/4 c.

  • 2 T. pine nuts (optional)
  • 2 large bunches basil, leaves only, washed well and dried
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 3 T. freshly grated Parmesan (optional)
  • salt to taste

If using the pine nuts, toast in a small skillet over medium-low heat for about 4 minutes, tossing frequently, until evenly lightly browned. Immediately remove them from the pan and cool completely.

Finely chop the basil and garlic in a food processor. With the machine running, pour in the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Add the cheese and pine nuts, if using. Process until fairly smooth. Salt to taste.

Pesto can also be made the traditional way, with a mortar and pestle. Use it as a sauce for pasta (this recipe makes enough for about a pound of cooked pasta), a spread for crackers or crostini, or as a salad dressing. Garnish a soup with a dollop of pesto or use it in place of red sauce on pizza.

Sources: Angelic Organics: http://www.angelicorganics.com/Vegetables/vegetablescontent.php?contentfile=vegstorage; Encyclopedia Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/; Epicurious: http://www.epicurious.com; Barbara Kafka: Vegetable Love; Deborah Madison: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone ; Marian Morash: The Victory Garden Cookbook; Andrea Peirce: Practical Guide to Natural Medicines

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