All hail the Herb King!
May 25, 2019
Basil (Ocimum Basilicum) was deemed "king of herbs" in ancient times. Basilius is the Greek word for king! It was likely brought to Greece from India where it was, and still is revered and used in Hindu religious ceremonies. The French call it "herbe royal." American Indians used basil for decades before the colonists arrived with their seeds. By the late 1700s, basil appeared in advertisements in American newspapers, and was an important ingredient in many of their recipes. Today it is essential in many culinary delights throughout the world.
There are over 60 varieties offering choices in taste, size, color and growth pattern. We will concentrate on "sweet basil," the most common. It is a bushy plant growing to about two feet tall. The leaves are green and oval shaped with spikes of white flowers. Other varieties that I favor are Genovese, lemon, cinnamon, purple ruffles, pesto perpettuo and lettuce leaf. The leaves and fresh flowers of O.basilicum are fragrant and their sharp taste is a combination of cloves, mint, anise, licorice, pepper and thyme. Each variety provides a different flavor, but all are distinctly basil. I have found that when participants in my classes taste herbs they perceive flavors differently. Let your taste buds be your guide when purchasing basil or any "edible" herb plant.
Lemon basil adds a zesty citrus flavor to fish, poultry, sauces, tea and sugar cookies. Cinnamon will liven up your poultry, ham and fruit salads. Both are tasty in desserts that are enhanced by these two flavors. Purple ruffles, and other red varieties make delectable and colorful vinegars and oils. Lettuce leaf (B. crispum) has large leaves that are perfect on sandwiches.
Basil does well in moist, rich soil that remains around 50 degrees all year. It germinates, however, at a much warmer ground and air temperature. Tehachapi's cold nights and soil make this annual herb a slow starter, and short season tenant. I buy small potted plants as soon as available in food stores and from Burpee Co. I keep them inside in a sunny spot until the temperature is appropriate to be moved outside. They have to be put in larger containers or in the ground when size warrants. I find they do very well in pots and sometimes I can maintain them all winter near a sunny window in the house. Fresh flowers should be removed to promote leaf growth and are a tasty and aromatic addition in salads. Lemon and cinnamon are particularly nice indoors because of their fragrance.
Basil's rich, spicy flavor makes it one of the most popular cooking herbs. It is a vital ingredient in Italian, Mexican and Asian cooking. It pairs tastefully with tomato dishes, soups, stews, cheeses, salads, ground meat, salad dressings and vegetables. It blends well with garlic, grated cheese and olive oil. Fresh basil leaves can be frozen in plastic bags or chopped with a little water and put in ice cube trays. It will keep for a few days when washed, loosely wrapped in a paper towels, and stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. It can also be stored in the refrigerator, bouquet style in a container with a little water at the bottom. Leaves can also be immersed in oil or vinegar for specific, short term use. I don't use dried basil, because it lacks flavor and color.
Due to its antispasmodic properties, a tea made from the leaves is used to treat nausea, flatulence and upset stomachs. It contains beneficial carotenoids and folic acid. When I visited a farmer in China he said he crushed it and used it on bites and stings. The therapeutic action is due to methyl chavicol, one of the essential oils contained in the plant. I have used it successfully on bug bites. The leaves have to be first crushed to release the essential oils.
It is fitting that this "kingly herb" should rule in a section of every herb garden. It is a lovely, aromatic addition to flower beds and the general landscape. Grow several varieties and see what it is like to have "royalty" in your own backyard!
This column is the first in a series of four relating to basil. Please contact me at [email protected] or http://www.herbbasket.net if you have any questions, or experiences with the king of herbs. Join us for this basil adventure!