Basil, like many foods throughout the ages, has had a multitude of identities. Basil derived from the Greek word basiliskos which literally translates as "Little King." It is alleged that basil was a constituent in various regal potions and medicines. However, if you were to hop in your time machine and visit various eras and places around the globe, you would encounter many different associations with basil. Legend has it that it grew around Christ's tomb, as well as on the spot where the Holy Cross was found. Various cultures also thought that it would help the dead make their final journey. Conversely it has also been linked with Satan and witches. Also known as “witch’s herb” witches supposedly drank basil juice before flying into the night. In Italy it was a sign of love and in Greece just the opposite. African mythology asserts that basil protects against scorpions. There's even confusion about where it originated: Africa or Asia. Geeeeez. All this fuss over a simple plant. OK, let's discuss what basil really is.
Basil is a member of the mint family. There are dozens of varieties, most of which are annuals. The most common species is sweet basil. Its flavor is similar to licorice and/or cloves yet somewhat sweet. There’s lemon and cinnamon basil which contain different amounts or combinations of certain essential oils and produce a flavor reminiscent of their respective namesake. Thai basil has a stronger licorice flavor and is popular in Southeast Asian cooking. I particularly like it in Vietnamese noodle soups. Basil seeds are also used to make Asian drinks and desserts. There’s even purple basil, also noted for its licorice and cinnamon flavors.
Basil likes warm weather and a lot of sun. It's relatively easy to grow as long as it has ample light and water. Pinch off the flower buds since they inhibit leaf growth. During the winter you can grow it indoors but place it on your sunniest windowsill.
Basil is a delicate herb and deteriorates rapidly after harvesting. Try to use as it as fresh as possible. Store it like other herbs, either wrapped in damp paper towels inside a plastic bag, or inserted in a container of water like flowers in a vase. Either way it will be a shadow of its original self in days. Never use dried basil. Virtually all of its nuances are lost by dehydration.
Refrain from cooking basil as heat will obliterate its pungent yet fragile essence. Sprinkle it on your dish at the very end of cooking. Basil also bruises very easily. Within moments of being cut it begins to turn black. You can counter this by using a very sharp knife, (which does less damage to the cells), slicing it as little as possible, and cutting it just before use. If you must cut it ahead of time cover it with some olive oil to inhibit its darkening.
Basil is sliced into what is known as a chiffonade, i.e., thin strips. This minimizes the number of cuts and the subsequent bruising and blackening of the leaves. To make a chiffonade roll about 5 basil leaves or so into a cigar shape. Then begin slicing from end to end. Don’t go back over them and chop them as you would parsley or other herbs. You can also produce a chiffonade by rolling the basil from end to end. This latter method tends to produce wider strips.
After washing your basil, (or any food for that matter), make sure you dry it thoroughly before cutting it. Water acts as a lubricant and increases the chances of the knife sliding effortlessly off the basil and into your other hand. The worse cut I ever endured, which if not for my nail would have taken the tip of my finger clean off, was the result of cutting wet basil while watching TV. Yeah I know, not very smart. What can I say; it wards off scorpions not lapses in judgment.
Basil is used the world over but is most popular in Italy, particularly in and around Liguria, and southern France, particularly Provence. In Liguria it is part of the timeless classic, pesto, a sauce made from pulverized basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese. In Provence basil stakes its claim to fame in pistou, which can refer to either the French version of pesto, or a minestrone-like soup flavored with pesto.
It really goes without saying how naturally basil pairs with tomatoes. Be it tomato sauce, bruschetta, or a salad Calabrese, (tomatoes, mozzarella and basil), basil and tomatoes is a marriage made in heaven. No wonder there’s even a saint named after it. Basil can be added directly to salads, incorporated into a vinnaigrette, used in soups, or employed as the finishing touch for all kinds of pasta and grain dishes.
You can make basil butter or basil oil. For basil butter, just mix chopped basil and softened butter. Place the butter on plastic wrap, roll it into a log, twist the ends to perfect the cylindrical shape, and then refrigerate it. Slice and dab it on fish, pasta, vegetables, bread, etc.
For basil oil, take a large batch of basil and whiz it with olive oil and salt if you like in a blender. You can strain it or leave it rustic. Pour it on tomatoes, bruschetta, mozzarella cheese, pasta, fish, or just dip bread in it with a bottle of wine. Use the oil within five days and leave it refrigerated. Oils flavored with fresh herbs are highly vulnerable to spoilage.
• 12 oz. pasta
• Olive oil and/or butter as needed
• Pinch of hot pepper flakes
• 1 small-medium onion, chopped
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 4 cloves garlic, chopped
• 1 14.5 oz. can chicken broth
• 1 cup light cream
• 1 medium to large batch of basil, cut en chiffonade
While the pasta is cooking heat the oil and/or butter in a pan with the hot pepper. Add the onion, salt and pepper and cook until the onion softens. Add the garlic and cook one more minute. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add the cream and barely return it to a gentle simmer. Since it is light cream, over cooking can cause it to break. Of course you could use heavy cream and dismiss that anxiety. Add the basil and additional salt and pepper if needed. Add the pasta, stir to incorporate it into the sauce and serve.
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