The star performer in much of my cooking is basil. It is a favorite of mine because it refuses to let even the heaviest sauce overpower it. The most commonly available variety is Sweet basil (Ocinum basilicum) and its flavor is described by some people as a cross between licorice and cloves. That description can be misleading since basil projects a more complex flavor when combined with other foods. Basil is a member of the mint family and was revered by the ancient Greeks. It is native to India and Asia although it is widely grown around the world.
There are many varieties of basil and they are generally classified as either Mediterranean basils or Asian basils. Most of the Mediterranean varieties are milder than the Asian varieties. The basils are diverse and some varieties have unlikely-sounding flavors such as lemon and cinnamon. Among all the different varieties, there is a flavor to suit everyone’s palate. Basil has even been heralded as a healing herb being touted as having antioxidant properties.
At least one variety of basil can be found in fresh or dried form in most grocery stores. Dried basil is the least desirable form because the drying process destroys most of the flavor. Basil is a pretty plant that you can grow yourself. You can start basil from seeds or buy plants at most garden centers. Grown outside during the summer, this tender annual can be brought inside during colder months and grown on a sunny windowsill. Snipping the leaves as you need them is quite convenient.
Fresh basil sprigs from the grocery store can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days. If wilting occurs, cut at least 1/4-inch off the stem end and then submerge the sprigs in a bowl of cold water. That usually perks up even the most wilted leaves within a few minutes. You can successfully freeze fresh basil by layering sprigs between sheets of waxed paper that is then put into a plastic storage bag. Pop your bag of basil in the freezer for future use. Most of the flavor and aroma will be retained even though the color won’t be the same. Dried basil can be stored in a closed glass container at room temperature for up to six months. For longer storage, refrigerating or freezing are good options.
Basil is one of the main ingredients in pesto and it adds a nice flavor to tomato-based pasta sauces and soups. Although versatile, the leaves are delicate and lose flavor when exposed to high heat; therefore, it is recommended that basil be added during the last few seconds of cooking. Adding it just before serving will allow the heat to bring out the pungent oils without destroying the flavor.
Basil lends itself to your creativity and will give a nice little kick to many foods. I’ve added chopped basil leaves to coleslaw and got rave reviews at a potluck dinner. Toss a few sprigs of chopped fresh basil into a green bean and garlic sauté just before removing it from the heat and you turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Flavor cooked summer squash with freshly ground black pepper and fresh or dried basil to balance the subtle flavor of the squash. Make a scrumptious quick corn salsa by tossing together whole kernel corn, diced tomatoes, crushed pineapple, chopped green bell pepper, minced onion, and a little chopped fresh basil; that’s a perfect accompaniment for grilled fish. If you’ve never used basil, you’ve missed out on a wonderful flavor enhancer.