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Basil Blast: Verdant and Versatile

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BasilAs I filled my hands with freshly snipped stems of basil for a sauce recently, a familiar, spicy scent suddenly spoke its name, loud and clear: clove.

I’d thought of basil as a member of the mint family. The two herbs thrive side by side in large pots on my patio. Basil is especially famous as a pesto ingredient as well as a remedy for an upset stomach, as is mint. But the sudden scent of clove gave me another clue as to why basil works so beautifully in a range of dishes.

Here’s one example: In December I prepared one of the dishes from the “Cooking with Les Dames d’Escoffier” for a function at the Culinary Institute of America. The committee for the event had chosen the appetizer recipe I would prepare. When I looked at Abigail’s Crusty Sausage Rolls I was intrigued at the combination of herbs in the ingredient list: fresh basil, allspice and sage.

The resulting appetizer was very good. A filling of the pork sausage (I used Jimmy Dean’s) was seasoned with the above ingredients, mixed with Parmigiano-Reggiano and mozzarella cheese. Then, a pizza crust (pre-fab) was rolled around it and it was baked. The long roll is supposed to be served on a large cutting board, a knife handy, so guests can cut off what they want and move on to the next appetizer. (We cut it into slices and served as a passed appetizer.)

Basil, with its clove-y, somewhat anise-like taste, allspice and sausage, along with a bit of sage, turned ho-hum sausage into a dish with personality. And I now had a new seasoning combination to experiment with.

Basil is so familiar to us, but lovers of this herb might consider its interesting, ancient history. In Italy it is used as a love symbol. When a woman puts a pot of basil on her outdoor balcony, it means she is ready to accept her suitor, according to “Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs”.

The Greek word for basil is derived from the word for “king.” The plant is thought to have originated in Africa, but first cultivated in India. (An in-depth discussion on the origins of the plant and the word can be found on Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages,

Basil, and some of its many varieties (such as lemon basil or Thai basil), is used in many of the world’s cuisines. It marries famously with olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano for pesto. Its deep green, cushioned leaves are perfect for garnishing dishes in which the herb is used. One can add it to sachets or potpourris. It is pretty in a flower garden as well as an herb garden. It thrives happily in a pot on a balcony or deck, contributing lush, deep green color and a warm fragrance.

Use basil for more than pesto. Traditionally used in the Mediterranean and Thailand, warm climates such as ours, many foods and summer dishes will love a touch of basil:

  • Veal, pork and fish
  • Light summery vegetables, such as summer squash, zucchini and eggplant
  • Green salads (Fresh basil is very pungent, so use it judiciously.)
  • Soups, stews and sauces
  • Winter vegetables, such as cauliflower
  • Just about anything that is good with thyme, garlic or lemon juice. Also a natural with olive oil (put some in your bread dipping sauce).
  • Cooked white beans, pasta
  • Omelets (such as a Fresh Tomato and Basil Omelet) (for recipe, click here)

Finally, if you have an abundance of basil this summer, share it. Give it to non-cooks to use as an aromatic in the kitchen or for tea for a stomach ache. Suggest they use the stems, if long enough, to add color and fragrance to a bouquet. If you want to preserve it, chop it finely, add water and freeze it in an ice cube tray. When frozen, pack the cubes into zip-tight freezer bags.

Cooks might also want to add these recipes to their fresh basil repertoire: Abigail’s Crusty Sausage Rolls and Fresh Tomato Omelet.

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