Italian Herb Of The Month – Basil
One of the most important herbs in my kitchen, and certainly my personal favorite is fresh sweet basil. I use this wonderful fragrant herb on a daily basis, and because it really does not store well once it is picked, I always grow a small pot of basil in a sunny spot on my patio. I just returned to my place in Florida and was thrilled to see that my pot of basil on the terrace survived the stormy summer and was in fact flourishing, despite being completely ignored and left on it’s own for the past 5 months.
Sweet basil, or Ocimum basilicum, actually was named from the Greek word “basileus”, which means king. Although one cannot imagine Italian cooking without basil, it might be surprising for many to find out that basil originated in India, and was brought to Italy via the spice route during ancient times. Basil became an integral seasoning in Italian cuisine, and in fact Italians had such appreciation for this herb, that it became a symbol of love. It is said that if an Italian woman placed a sprig of basil on her balcony, it was a message to her beau that he could call that evening.
Growing Basil: Basil is a very easy herb to grow from seed, but does prefer warmer temperatures, growing best when it can get at least 5 hours of hot sunlight each day. It is not frost tolerant, and does require a little more water than most other herbs. Basil will also grow well in containers, or even in a small pot in a sunny window. Pinch off the flower buds to keep the plants healthy, and to promote leaf production. Basil is one herb that is best used fresh, or preserved because when dried it loses much of it’s special character. It is a bushy annual with small leaves that grows to about 20 inches tall.
Preserving Basil: Basil can be harvested throughout the growing season and preserved, although when available, fresh is always best. When basil is in season, I prefer to freeze my basil in a paste made with olive oil, as you would make pesto. I simply take my freshly washed leaves and puree them in a food processor, adding enough good quality olive oil to make a smooth paste. I then freeze my basil paste in small ice cube trays. Once frozen, I break up the cubes and keep them stored in an airtight bag in my freezer. These cubes are great added to tomato sauce, soups or stews, or simply diluted with a little additional olive oil and drizzled over prepared foods.
Storing And Cooking With Basil: Fresh basil leaves will only keep for around 5 days in the refrigerator. Simply wipe with a damp cloth, or lightly rinse under water, and place in a damp paper towel, being careful not to bruise the delicate leaves which will cause them to turn black. Place this paper towel in a plastic bag and refrigerate for up to 5 days. Basil is delicious fresh in salads, or chopped and sprinkled over baked chicken, lamb or fish. Fresh, it imparts a sweet, minty aroma to foods. When cooked, it adds a new dimension to vegetable dishes, but of course is most famous for it’s use in tomato sauces. When cooking with basil, add it in during the last few minutes, to keep it’s color bright, and flavor lively.
Recipes For Basil: Perhaps the tastiest way to appreciate the true depth of basil is in a simple Pesto Sauce served over pasta. In tomato sauce, basil in my mind is almost an indispensable herb. A simple sauce that can be made in mere minutes, and superbly highlights the taste of basil, is my Tomato Quick Sauce. If you enjoy the wonderful taste of fresh basil, then a great way to appreciate it is in a simple salad such as Insalata Caprese, which consists of simply fresh mozzarella, ripe juicy tomatoes, and fresh basil.
I always keep a small quantity of pesto diluted with olive oil on hand to drizzle over prepared dishes, but the one dish that truly comes to life with a drizzle of basil flavored oil is Ribollita, a robust, Tuscan vegetable soup. Basil brings out the best flavor in many vegetable dishes, and I love basil with roasted potatoes. I feel that any meal would improve from a side dish of Roasted Potatoes With Tomatoes and Basil.
If basil hasn’t played an important role in your kitchen, I hope you’ll now give it a try.
Deborah Mele 2011