Basil is one of my favorite herbs. Being half Italian, I grew up growing it, making sauces and using it in my fresh salads. I also love including basil in a number of my favorite recipes. Let me share with you some of what I know about this wondrous herb.
Basil, also called sweet basil, is the dried leaves of the herb ocimum basilicum, a member of the mint family. A small, bushy plant that grows to about two feet tall, basil’s botanical name is derived from the Greek, “to be fragrant.” Although basil is cultivated worldwide, Egypt is the principal source, followed by the United States.
The early Romans made basil a symbol of love and fertility. Through the centuries, it became a custom of young Italian suitors to wear a sprig of basil as a sign of their marital intentions. In India, Hindus believed that if a leaf of basil were buried with them it would serve as their passport to heaven.
Basil also exhibits anti-inflammatory properties, making it a good food to consume by people who have problems with arthritis. An oil in basil called eugenol blocks the activity of an enzyme in the body called cyclooxygenase, which normally causes 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.
Basil is a leading spice in many Italian and Thai dishes. It is also the main ingredient in many pestos. You can grow your own basil, but many people do not have the time, garden space or green thumb to do so. To buy fresh basil, choose bunches that are a vibrant green in color. Avoid bunches with dark or yellow spots. Fresh basil is undoubtedly better flavored, but dried basil is a good substitute.
Dried basil is stored in jars in the spice cabinet; fresh basil may be stored in many ways. The bunch will stay fresh for about a week if wrapped in a damp paper towel and kept in the refrigerator. It can also be frozen in ice cube trays by adding either water or stock to the tray. The frozen cubes can simply be added to soups or stews as needed.
Treat your body and mind to the refreshing effects of basil essential oil. Rub a few drops onto your skin when you’re feeling worn out or whenever you need relief. Diffuse basil or inhale its earthy scent straight from the bottle to help restore mental clarity and alertness. As one of the most important essential oils, basil offers balance to tired, tense bodies.
PESTO WITH ARUGULA
(Yields 12 Servings)
This pesto is unique due to the arugula, which gives it a peppery bite. I also like the lack of cheese, but add it if you must. Use as a spread or on pasta. My favorite is on baguette slices or on whole wheat crackers. It’s addictive!
1 ½ cups baby arugula leaves
1 ½ cups fresh basil leaves
2/3 cup pine nuts
8 cloves garlic
1 (6 ounce) can black olives, drained
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ lime, juiced
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
1 pinch ground cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste
Place the arugula, basil, pine nuts, garlic and olives in a food processor, and chop to a coarse paste. Mix in olive oil, lime juice, vinegar, cumin, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper. Process until well blended and smooth.