Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Spice of Life...Basil

Sweet basil has a complex, sweet, spicy aroma with notes of clove and anise.  The flavor is warm, peppery, and clove-like with underlying mint and anise tones.

Basil belongs to the mint family, as is clear from the minty, anise notes that accompany its sweetness.  Native to tropical Asia, where it has been cultivated for 3,000 years, it is now grown almost everywhere where the climate is warm enough.  The most common basil, Genoese basil, has large, bright green, silky leaves and small, white flowers.  Good for all Western cooking, it is the best basil for pesto, pistou, and tomato salads.  It combines very well with garlic.

In Western cooking, basil is the natural companion of tomatoes, whether in a salad, sauce, or soup.  It is a good flavoring for poultry too - combine softened butter with chopped basil, garlic, grated lemon rind, and a few bread crumbs, then work the mixture under the skin of a chicken or chicken pieces before baking.  Use basil with fish and seafood, especially lobster and scallops.  It also has an affinity with raspberries.  Basil also works well with corn, cream cheese, eggplant, eggs, lemon, mozzarella cheese, olives, pasta, peas, pizza, potatoes, rice, white beans, and zucchini.

Sweet basil turns black when cooked in a tomato sauce or other acid medium, but retains its flavor.  It quickly loses its aroma when cooked, so use it in a dish for depth of flavor, then stir in a little more to add fragrance when the cooking is finished.

Most basils are tender annuals.  Basil grows easily from seed, and needs a sheltered, sunny position in rich, well-drained soil.  In cooler climates it prefers a greenhouse or a windowsill.  Delay flowering and encourage bushiness by pinching out the tops.  Harvest until the first frost.

Basil leaves bruise and wilt easily, so avoid bunches with drooping or blackened leaves.  Store for 2-3 days in a damp paper towel or plastic bag in the refrigerator vegetable crisper.  One of the best ways to preserve basil is to puree the leaves with a little water or olive oil and freeze in ice-cube trays.

Some other common basils are Purple Basil best used with rice, grains, and salads.  Bush Basil, also called Greek Basil is a compact bush with small leaves and pepper aroma.  Cinnamon Basil is native to Mexico and has a pronounced, sweet scent with clear cinnamon notes and works well with bean and legume dishes along with spicy, stir-fried vegetables.  African Blue basil has leaves that are mottled green-purple with purple flowers.  It is strongly scented with peppery, clove, and mint notes.  Use it with rice, vegetables, and meats.  It is very good in potato salad and makes an outstanding pesto.  This basil is a perennial as long as it is kept frost-free.

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