by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
The aroma of a large bouquet of basil is one of the highlights of summer. It is one of my favorite herbs and it is generally at its peak in August, but with all the warm and rainy weather we have had, it has been in plentiful supply earlier this season. Sweet basil has a very unique pungent taste that nothing can replace. Fresh sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, topped with leaves of fresh basil and slices of mozzarella—or any kind of cheese, for that matter—hits the spot, nothing finer! I cherish it in the summer since I have not had success with keeping it going in a pot all winter. It loves the heat, sun, and humidity, so it is a challenge to keep a basil plant healthy and strong all winter long in Vermont.
Basil has been reported to be a native plant of India. There it was known as a holy plant and was grown around temples and shrines. It eventually spread to the Mediterranean region. The word “basil” is derived from the Greek word basileus, which means “royal or kingly.” Many chefs or culinary professionals view basil as the king of herbs due to its magnificent taste and delicate flavor. It is a member of the mint family and there are more than 60 varieties cultivated for use in cooking and for perfumes. Sweet basil is the variety most commonly known for culinary use because of the pesto sauce that became popular in the U.S. in the 1980s. Other well known culinary varieties of basil include Thai, cinnamon, lemon, holy, and the beautiful opal basil. Thai basil has a very strong taste too and is a must in many Southeast Asian recipes.
Basil has many nutritional attributes since it is frequently used in large amounts rather than as a garnish or the small amount that is often the case for many herbs. It provides a significant amount of vitamin K, which has been shown to help with bone strengthening and blood coagulation. It also contains vitamin A, which protects the body from free radicals that can trigger development of a number of chronic health problems. Moderate amounts of potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium, and folic acid are also found in this wonderful herb. Its volatile oils are associated with a variety of health-protective benefits, including anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, and anti-inflammatory properties. It also has been shown to inhibit growth of food-borne bacteria. Research has shown that washing produce in water containing a small amount of essential oil—1% obtained from either basil or thyme leaves—reduces the number of infections caused by a variety of bacteria. It makes sense then to add fresh basil to your raw salads or vinaigrette dressing to protect against any possibility of food-borne illness.
Buy basil fresh whenever it is available or cut it fresh from your garden. Just like many other plants, basil likes to be trimmed when it is growing fast. Treat your basil like a bouquet of flowers since it is quite perishable. I usually put my bunch in a glass or jar of water. It looks beautiful and holds up well until I use it. It browns quickly in the refrigerator if it is stored in a plastic zipped-lock bag that might have moisture in it, so don’t wash it until you are ready to use it. Sweet basil pesto can be made with olive oil and garlic for instant use or can be frozen so that it can be enjoyed in the winter.