In parts of Italy, men sport a sprig of basil on their lapel if they’re looking for love. Although an interesting fashion statement, we’ll enjoy basil as part of our healthy eats instead.
The herb basil (Ocimum basilicum, Labiatae) is part of the mint family. It seems to have originated in India about 4,000 years ago. The ancient Greeks called it the “King of Herbs.” The herb gained popularity in England in the 16th century and was brought to the Americas by English explorers.
Basil can be found in different shapes, sizes, and colors — there are over 60 varieties. The most common are large-leaf Italian sweet, purple opal, Thai, lemon, tiny-leaf and African blue. Sweet Italian (a.k.a. sweet Genovese) is probably the one most recognized. The bright green leaves are rounded, have a pungent flavor that’s a cross between licorice and cloves.
The main producer in the U.S. is California, but basil is also grown commercially in India, Israel, Mexico, Yugoslavia, Italy and Morocco.
Basil is also bursting with phytochemicals such as the antioxidants rosmarinic and caffeic acid. Orientin and vicerin are other phytochemicals that help protect cells from damage.
Basil has been used for years to help alleviate ailments such as mouth ulcers, earaches, hair loss, indigestion and itching. It’s also used to as a homemade bug repellent—just crush and rub onto skin.
What To Do With Basil
Basil is traditionally used in Mediterranean, Thai and Italian cooking. Many varieties pair nicely with tomatoes and garlic—such as in a homemade tomato sauce, pesto, or pizza. Fresh basil leaves can be torn and tossed into salads or pasta dishes. Besides savory dishes, basil works wonders in sweet dishes like yogurt or sorbet. Fresh leaves can be added to vinegar or oil—the flavor will seep into the liquid, infusing its flavor.
Basil can be dried or frozen. To freeze, layer herb between sheets of wax paper and place in freezer. The leaves will darken, but the flavor will remain.
Shopping and Storage Tips: Choose basil with bright green leaves without brown or yellow spots. Place cut stems in container of water and keep on the windowsill for up to one week (be sure to change the water every other day). Basil can also be stored in the refrigerator wrapped in a damp paper towel for up to 4 days. To lengthen shelf life, place basil in a contained, cover with olive oil, seal, and store in refrigerator for up to 2 months.
Recipes To Try:
- Tomato, Watermelon, and Basil Skewers
- Pesto Potato Salad
- Basil and Lime Sorbet
- Grapefruit, Onion, and Basil Salad
- Black Pepper Basil Farmers Cheese Bruschetta
- Pizza with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil
- Summer Squash Soup with Basil
- Parmesan, Basil, and Lemon Wafers
- Shrimp with Basil, Garlic, and Tomatoes
- Fresh Pea Frittata with Tomato-Basil Concasse
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »