Basil: King of the Summer Garden

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Beating fragrant things – especially garlic, basil, parsley – is a great antidote to depression.” Patience Gray

Beautiful basil is an aromatic, herbaceous plant plant of the genus ocimum in the mint family Lamiaceae. Thought to be somewhat “promiscuous” in nature, it can have up to 160 species. The chemical constituents of basil offer many variations in fragrance and flavor, including cinnamon, cloves, tarragon, licorice, camphor, citrus, anise, mint, eucalyptus, and thyme. . It is the summer grass par excellence; when it’s hot, it couldn’t be happier. Very sensitive to cold, the leaves develop an intensity of flavor during the summer. They pair effortlessly with the cornucopia of vegetables and fruits at the peak of flavor. Basil has a special affinity for tomatoes and enhances the taste of squash, eggplant, green beans, peppers, peaches, melons and berries, just to start.

Pesto — green gold

The symbol of Italy Genoese pesto is the mother sauce of herbs and the most popular use of basil. This originating from the region of Liguria on the “Italian Riviera”, which is the region famous for the cultivation of Genovese basil DOP or Protected Designation of Origin. The word pesto comes from the verb pester (“pounded”), a culinary technique from ancient Rome. A marble mortar and wooden pestle are used to grind the garlic, basil without the stems, pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil and parmesan (with a little pecorino) into a creamy paste . Pesto adds incredible flavor to many dishes, even shrimp and grits!

Size Matters

Genoese (O. basilicum) is the most admired of the “sweet basil” — a catch-all term — and will brighten up your kitchen from pesto to pie. The leaves give off an intoxicating scent of French tarragon, cinnamon and cloves. The taste and texture of basil grown in Liguria is exceptionally delicate. Harvested young, the whole plant is pulled up when it is about 6 inches tall. Bright green oval leaves are medium to small. In American gardens, Genovese is usually grown at a larger size.

History of basil: snakes in the garden

Basil is native to tropical Africa and Asia. Its name comes from basileus, which means “king” in Greek. For thousands of years, the benefits of basil for human health have been recognized. Its essential oils have significant antimicrobial and antifungal activity against bacteria and some fungi, but basil has been shrouded in more superstition than any other herb. In Greco-Roman times, perfume and magic intertwined, giving it a dual personality; some considered basil to be a “devil’s plant” embodying misfortune. If crushed and placed under a stone, the basilisk would spawn scorpions! Take a whiff of basil and scorpions would sprout in your brain!

These fears were likely fueled by the mythical basil – a snake-like dragon that could kill with just a look, like all Harry Potter fans know it – and also by the very real poisonous horned adder and the hooded king cobra. However, Roman scholar Pliny the Elder believed basil had many positive attributes. He cataloged them but noted that the basilisk was an antidote to the bite… and stare… of a basil! English botanist Nicholas Culpepper wrote that herbalists “take on each other like lawyers” in their disagreement over weed. Despite its flaws, basil is considered a powerful love charm in many countries and is called “kiss me-Nicholas” (bacia-nicola) in Italy, where it is synonymous with love.

Basil – Right away!

The season to enjoy basil is short – select two or three types to plant in a large patio pot or garden. Consider variations in scent, flavor, color and size when choosing. To prevent flowering, regularly cut the basil heads. Once it starts, leaf growth stops and the flavor diminishes. The more you harvest, the bushier and more prolific the plants will be. Many varieties have interchangeable culinary uses. To preserve their flavors, add the leaves to the food during the last minutes of cooking. Some of the selections include:

Showy purple-leaved basil (O. basilicum var. purpurascens) have the attributes of green basil and are rich in anthocyanin compounds – a commercial source of food coloring. Genovese-type ‘Crimson King’ has lovely burgundy leaves and a licorice scent. Steep fragrant sprigs in lemonade or a jar of white wine vinegar; they will take on a delicate pink hue.

Several basilisks (O. basilicum var. crispum) have Jurassic sized leaves and are fun to grow and eat. Napoletano’s aromatic foliage has an intense, spicy anise flavor and ruffled, green leaves that grow up to 5 inches. ‘Lettuce Leaf’ has giant, curly leaves but a milder flavor. Substitute lettuce leaves and use for layering, wrapping, rolling or stuffing.

The “queen of perfumes”, “Marseille” attracts butterflies and bees. Its smooth, mild licorice flavor is perfect for pesto — a variation of pesto from Provence, France. This dwarf basil makes a nice low hedge for walkways.

Hot and Spicy ‘Cinnamon’ Basil (O. basilicum), or Mexican basil, has a cinnamon-like scent and flavor that complements Mexican and Middle Eastern dishes. It was grown on the International Space Station.

‘Queen of Siam’ (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora), is an All-America Selections winner. Thai basil has narrow, serrated leaves and a musky scent mixed with cloves. It retains its spicy flavors when cooked at higher temperatures. Indispensable in Thai cuisine and Vietnamese phỏ soup, Thai basil is bay horapa in Thailand.

Do you like lemon? ‘Mrs. Burns Lemon Basil (O. basilicum X citriodore) has large leaves strongly scented with lemon essence; just give them a little squeeze! Award-winning ‘Sweet Dani’ is particularly rich in essential oils with a bright lemon flavor and scent. It dries particularly well.

In ancient lore, the early Romans and Greeks believed strongly in the mystical charms of basil, as do many modern day cooks! Although his powers don’t evoke scorpions and dragons, he can turn meals into magical, flavorful experiences.

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