Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Holy basil, Batman! What can you do with this herb?

This Friday, September 23, marks the autumn equinox and thus the end of summer, which means a whole new season of foods and feelings. Fall is my favorite time of year, with its cooler temperatures, gorgeous colors, and bounty of squashes, apples, sweet potatoes--nice roasty-toasty foods that like a long simmer in flavorful stock or slow roasting in the oven.

But I am not going to talk about that--not yet anyway. No, this is a last hurrah for a summer herb: basil. I am sure people use basil all times of year, but for me, it evokes summer. Its spicy intensity plays especially well with fresh, juicy fruits with a lot of acid: tomatoes, peaches, plums. It's also lovely with watermelon. (Here's a great salad: halved cherry tomatoes, cubed watermelon, torn basil with a dash of salt and a splash of vinegar.) For a truly exquisite drink, make lemonade and add some smashed strawberries and slivered basil. You will be amazed that something as simple and delicious as lemonade could reach such heights.

The most common form of basil in cooking (at least here in the West) is a variety called Genovese basil (that's the one with the big, shiny leaves you often find in pots in grocery stores). In Latin, this type of basil is called Ocimum basilicum--a name that suggests the herb's history. Supposedly basil was found growing near the tomb of Christ, so the herb was frequently used in Orthodox churches (or basilicas) (1). Other sources indicate that basil was once regarded with fear and associated with the basilisk--a nasty reptilian monster that could kill with a glance or a breath (2). The herb is native to Africa, Asia, and India and features frequently in foods from those parts of the world.

Basil is part of the mint family (or Lamiacaes), which are easy to tell because they typically have square stems. Different varieties of basil have various culinary and medicinal uses. Opal basil has dark purple leaves, lavender flowers, and a strong scent of cloves; it's a beautiful plant in the garden. Thai basil, a variety with purple stems and flowers, is sweeter than Genovese and is often used in (surprise!) Thai cooking. I don't use opal or Thai basil too much because they are just a bit too strong for my taste, but I suspect that you could do some very interesting things with them in baking or making ice cream, especially in anything you would create with cinnamon, cloves, anise, or other spices of that nature. Medicinally, basil has been used to soothe upset stomachs (in a tea) and to calm anxiety and aid sleeping. I won't vouch for its effectiveness, but it isn't harmful. (3)

I have grown about 10 varieties of basil, including opal, Thai, lemon, lime, holy, and so forth, but these days I mostly stick to Genovese. Here is the basil I harvested last week:

Yes, I got a pretty good harvest of the stuff and kept it in fairly good condition, despite the brutally hot summer topped with a week of some of the heaviest rains we've seen around here (some of my favorite roads are still impassible because flooding washed parts of them away). I grew it from seed, which is pretty easy to do. The main things to remember when caring for basil plants are that they grow best in warm soil, they don't like to dry out completely (but they don't like to have wet feet either, so good drainage is important), and they like lots of sun. Also, to make sure that you get the best flavor, always pinch off the tops, especially if you see any signs of flowers. Flowering signals the death of an annual plant like basil; its flavor changes in rather unpleasant ways.

Basil is best fresh, but if you want to preserve some for winter days when you long for a memory of summer, your best bet is to freeze it. Dried basil is inferior in flavor, because those lovely volatile oils escape with the moisture as it dries. For best results, blend basil leaves (washed and dried) with a good olive oil and freeze the mixture in ice trays so that you can use a cube as you need it.

You can also make a flavored vinegar by pouring warm vinegar over basil leaves and letting it steep for a day or two. Make sure to strain the basil out though, because otherwise it gets slimy (ick) and becomes a potential breeding ground for bacteria (ickier).

Or, you can try growing basil in a pot in a sunny window. It won't grow as fast as it will outside in summer, but you may have enough to add a few leaves to your food now and then. Same rules apply inside as outside: sun, good drainage, moist soil, warmth, pinch off the flowers.    

And of course, there's always pesto, which freezes well and is easy-peasy to make in a food processor or blender. You'll need

  • 2 cups washed and dried basil leaves
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (4)
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts (feel free to substitute walnuts or hazelnuts)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • fresh ground pepper
Put the garlic, cheese, and nuts in your food processor and blend until you get an even, crumbly mass. Then add the basil leaves and blend to a paste. 

Add olive oil to the paste in a steady stream.

Scrape down the sides and blend again.

Add some salt (about a quarter teaspoon) and some fresh pepper. Blend again. Hey presto, you've got pesto! (Did I really just say that?)

So what can you do with it? Well, there's the obvious one: Add it to fresh cooked pasta for a simple meal. You can also use it on bread as a sandwich spread (let's see, what do you think of a sandwich spread with some pesto and slices of chicken and tomatoes?), or mix it into some mayo. Use it to flavor soups and stews. Ooh, I know, drop a spoonful onto a bowl of fresh, homemade cream of tomato soup. Coat some chicken with it and bake it. Add a dollop to a mess of biscuits, that might be good. Use it instead of tomato sauce on a pizza. In other words, do whatever sounds good.   

(1) Bremness, Lesley. 1988. The Complete Book of Herbs: A Practical Guide to Growing and Using Herbs. New York: Penguin Studio. 

(2) Kowalchik, Claire, and William H. Hylton, eds. 1987. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press. 

(3) Ah, herbal medicine. It's a complicated topic. On the one side, you have airy-fairy "practices" like homeopathy using magical, mystical mumbo jumbo principles of "like curing like" (hm, where have I heard of that before, oh yeah, alchemy; I don't think we have a method for creating gold from lead yet or did I miss a front page?). On the other end, you have breast and lung cancer treatments that derive from varieties of yew trees (Taxus brevifolia and Taxus canadensis). Then there is a range between these extremes. One of the problems with using herbs is some of them really work, which means that they can be very toxic if you don't know how to use them properly. Most culinary herbs are not toxic (bay leaves being one exception), so the dangers of using herbs medicinally doesn't usually apply here, but I generally recommend against playing around with herbs as cures.   

(4) Parmigiano Reggiano is obviously not a local ingredient, but is one of those rare exceptions where you really can't substitute something else. The industrial powder that comes in a green can labeled parmesan is not the same species of creature, not the same family of creature--heck, not even the same kingdom! 

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