Basil the “Royal Herb”
After some of the herbs I’ve discussed, I thought maybe I should cover an herb that nearly everyone has heard of or knows something about. So this week’s topic is basil. An annual, basil is a member of the mint family. Also known as sweet basil, it is prominently featured in varied cuisines throughout the world including Italian, Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian. It is the principal herb in Mediterranean cooking and becoming wildly popular in American cuisine. Egyptian basil is not as sweet, but is very tasty when you want the taste of basil but not the sweetness.
Basil is originally native to India and other tropical regions of Asia, having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. Basil is commonly used fresh, and in cooked recipes, is generally added at the last moment, as cooking for an extended period of time can destroy or dissipate the flavor. The fresh herb can be kept for a short time in plastic bags in the refrigerator, or for a longer period in the freezer, after being blanched quickly in boiling water then immediately bathed in ice water. The dried herb can loose some of its flavor if cooked for an extended period. Adding it near the end of the cooking process will give you much better and tastier results.
Basil is often combined with tomato in dishes. Basil is one of the main ingredients in pesto — a green Italian oil-and-herb sauce from the city of Genoa, its other two main ingredients are olive oil and pine nuts. When soaked in water, the seeds of several basil varieties become gelatinous and are used in Asian drinks and desserts.
In European folklore, basil is placed in the hands of the deceased to ensure a safe journey. While in India, basil is placed in the mouth of the dying to ensure they reach God. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks believed that it would open the gates of heaven for a person passing on. The ancient Greeks called basil the “Royal Herb”.
Lemon and cinnamon basil have the fragrance and taste of their namesakes. If you are out of basil you may substitute mint with a little marjoram; lemon verbena; or ground anise, cinnamon, or cloves.