Originally native to India, basil has earned itself a seat at many a dinner table around the world. Most commonly found in Italian cuisine and a main ingredient in the popular condiment pesto, basil is also used in many Southeast Asian dishes as well. This delicious aromatic mint-relative has many wonderful properties and a multitude of uses around the world in ethnic dishes, drinks, desserts, ornamental gardens and cut flower arrangements, as a great pollinator plant, and even in medicine.
The Many Faces of Basil
The classic Italian basils are known for their strong, sweet flavor and are used extensively in Mediterranean cooking. A traditional favorite is caprese salad, made by layering these leaves with slices of tomato and fresh mozzarella and drizzling with balsamic reduction (see recipe below). These varieties are also preferred for making pesto because of their large, abundant leaves, sweet flavor, and high essential oil content. They grow well when given lots of space for each plant and are best harvested by clipping the tops of the plants rather than harvesting individual leaves. This type of harvesting helps Italian basil plants grow large, robust, and bushy, producing many leaves over a long season.
- Sweet, 65 days – traditional Italian variety for pestos and vinegars, high yielding
- Genovese, 68 days – the classic variety for pesto, with large spoon-shaped leaves
- Aroma F1, 70 days – vigorous plant with slight anise flavor, Fusarium resistance
- Aroma 2 F1, 70 days – vigorous with large 3” long leaves, resists bolting and Fusarium resistant
- Italian Large Leaf, 78 days – very large plants with 4” long leaves, bolt resistance. Perfect for pesto!
A wonderful multi-purpose plant, purple basil is so pretty that even the strictest Homeowners Associations aren’t likely to complain! Try planting it with gold-colored flowers like California poppies, zinnias, or calendula for a stunning display – the shiny, deep purple leaves and beautiful lavender flowers are gorgeous in bouquets as well as on your plate. Purple basil tends to be a little smaller than Italian types and may not be quite as vigorous in the heat of summer. However, purple basil is a great plant for the early part of the season when overcast days and heavy spring rains dominate – the dark purple color of the leaves absorbs heat from the sun more readily than green basil, and the plants may thrive at times when green basil doesn’t.
- Rosie, 65 days – Aromatic, mild flavor appeal, upright and uniform
- Purple Dark Opal, 65 days – A beautiful garnish, strong flavor excellent for vinegar infusions, and an ornamental suitable for growing in pots
These days basils may feature a wide variety of flavors, textures, and appearances. They may have traditional uses, like Thai basil, or simply offer an unusual twist on the classic basil flavor. They are excellent in salads and vinegars, where their flavor profiles are allowed to shine.
- Lemon, 60 days – narrow leaves on smaller plants, excellent addition to fish, seafood, salads, and dressings; flowers have lemony fragrance
- Sweet Thai, 63 days – Clove and licorice flavors are delectable in Thai cuisine, gorgeous purple stems and flowers contrast with green leaves
- Cinnamon, 65 days – strong aroma and mild cinnamon flavor, medium green leaves with attractive purple stems and veining, pink flowers
While many basils can be successful in containers, the larger varieties usually do not grow quite as robust and bushy as they do in the ground. Container basils have many advantages – they are excellent for keeping on a patio or near the kitchen, where they can be quickly picked and added to a variety of dishes. They also play nice in mixed herb containers, which are adored by cooks (particularly where no garden space is available!) Their topiary-like appearance makes them popular centerpieces (and party favors) for weddings.
- Fino Verde, 63 days – compact, bushy little plant with tiny leaves, attractive rounded habit; sweet, spicy flavor makes a little go a long way!
Sacred basil, 63 days, is also known as Holy or Tulsi basil and is often found as an ingredient in herbal teas. It is a holy plant in India, where Hindis worship the plant as Tulasi, an incarnation of the goddess. While it has a similar appearance to culinary basil, its sweet, pungent flavor and aroma are distinctly different, and it is touted for having many medicinal properties. It has been used as an adaptagen, expectorant, diaphoretic, antidote to poison, anti-inflammatory, liver protector, stomach ulcer preventative, immune stimulator, air purifier, oxygenator of the brain, and is believed to reduce the damaging effects of the sun and radiation exposure.
Aside from the medicinal properties of Sacred basil, culinary basil is also packed full of nutritional goodness. Basil is super high in vitamin K (a co-worker of vitamin D), an often overlooked but important factor in blood clotting, strong bones, and the prevention of heart disease. The flavonoids, orientin and vicenin, provide DNA protection by protecting cell structures and chromosomes from radiation and oxidation. Its volatile oils have been shown to be effective in reducing the growth of certain bacteria, like Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, and E. coli, and have anti-inflammatory properties as well. It also contains beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant, and magnesium, which promotes cardiovascular health.
A Few Tricks of the Trade
- Tip #1- There is some debate on the best way to store basil once harvested. Many sources say to refrigerate after harvest. However, in my experience, basil can quickly develop black spots or edging from cold damage. I store mine in a vase of water immediately after harvest at room temperature. In warmer weather, you can even loosely place a clear plastic bag over the leaves to hold in the moisture.
- Tip #2- Basil can lose a considerable amount of flavor after it has been dried. For best storage and maintaining the most flavor, quickly blanch the leaves, then chop or puree and freeze in ice cube trays. Once frozen, transfer your frozen basil cubes to a freezer bag or storage container. You can even add olive oil and onions to the puree for an excellent addition to winter soup stocks.
- Tip #3- When cooking with fresh basil, add it to your meal near the end of cooking to preserve its essence and flavor.
A Treat for a Hot Summer Day
Kick back with this refreshing summer beverage after a long day in the garden!
Cucumber and Lime Herbal Soda
3 basil leaves
4 mint leaves
4 slices of cucumber
1 Tbsp lime juice
Maple Syrup to taste
In a pint glass, add basil, mint, cucumber, and lime and mash to release the juices of each (you can also coarsely chop the herbs first to help the process along). Add ice to your liking, fill with soda water, and sweeten with maple syrup to suit your sweet tooth. And don’t be shy, play with the ratios to find the flavor balance that really speaks to you. For an adult variation, add a bit of rum to turn this delicious mock-tail into a cocktail. Find a comfy spot outside in the shade and enjoy!
Another Seasonal Favorite
This simple, yet delicious, treat really speaks of summer.
Tomato and Basil with Mozzarella
1-2 medium to large slicing tomatoes of your choice
Fresh Mozzarella Cheese
Fresh basil leaves, enough to place one or two on each tomato slice
1/8 – ¼ Cup balsamic reduction
1-2 cloves of garlic, crushed and coarsely chopped (optional)
Salt and Pepper
First, make your balsamic reduction by using ¼ to ½ cup balsamic vinegar (depending on how many tomatoes you use) and cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vinegar has reduced in volume by half. Remove from the heat and let cool. For a variation of this simple reduction, add 1-2 cloves of crushed, chopped garlic to the vinegar while cooking and strain out when cooking is complete.
Once cool, slice the tomatoes to your desired thickness. Next slice the mozzarella cheese, enough to place a slice on each tomato. Then top each tomato and cheese with one or two fresh basil leaves and drizzle with balsamic reduction to your liking. Season with salt and pepper to taste.