What would a summer garden be without basil? Pretty boring if you ask me! I love to think of fresh herbs as staples for exquisite cooking and, come summer, basil is a must-have. Its refreshing aroma and distinct flavor are loved by cooks all over the world and the popularity of pesto simply added to its appeal. By some accounts, there are more than 60 varieties of basil — all slightly different in taste and appearance. Most of us are familiar with Sweet Basil, which is common to Italian dishes. Other varieties we may recognize are Thai Basil, Holy Basil and Lemon Basil. Although generally green in color, some varieties of basil have beautiful hues of red and purple. A long-time native to India, Iran, Asia and Africa, basil is grown all over the world and you’ll find it in popular dishes from Italy, Thailand and Vietnam as well as right here at home in the U. S. On the health front, basil has vitamins A and K and is packed with antioxidants, which can help protect against chronic diseases. Studies show that a higher intake of antioxidants can:
- Keep the immune system healthy
- Support healthy blood sugar levels
- Protect against oxidation reactions thought to be responsible for aging
- Keep the brain functioning optimally
- Promote healthy inflammatory reactions
- Support heart health
Ready to take the summer plunge into the world of basil? Here’s how:
- Basil is the perfect complement to tomatoes, olives and olive oil, capers, garlic, cheese and either pine nuts or walnuts. Serve it simple: slivered over thick tomato slices with a drizzle of olive oil, or serve it more complex: sandwiched between thick slices of fresh mozzarella and fresh tomato with a sprinkling of pine nuts and capers, a drizzle of olive oil and a dollop of fine goat cheese.
- Add basil to bean dips and sandwich spreads. Here’s a recipe for Walnut Spread.
- Add to tomato-based soups and vegetable stews.
- Add to whole grain or vegetable salads. Start here with this Tomato, Basil and Millet Salad.
- Puree or stir into creamy or vinaigrette salad dressings, like in this mouth-watering Tomato and Basil Dressing.
- Make pesto! Here’s a vegan Tofu Pesto and here’s a Walnut Pesto Pasta.
- Thinly slice and toss over pasta along with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of Romano cheese. Don’t forget some freshly ground black pepper! This recipe for Pasta with Brie, Basil and Tomatoes is unforgettable.
- Add to chicken or shrimp salad.
- Perfect with Asian noodle dishes. Here’s one for Thai Noodles with Beef and Basil.
- Season an entrée of fish, chicken, lamb, tofu or tempeh. Here’s an idea for Grilled Salmon with Basil Lemon Butter.
- Add to sautéed veggies – great with green beans, cauliflower, zucchini and yellow squash.
- Basil on a fruit salad? Yep - Great with peaches, raw or grilled! And here’s a Watermelon Salad with Tomatoes, Goat Cheese and Basil.
- Add to fruit smoothies; think watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, papaya, pineapple and mango.
- Add to lemonade, limeade or grapefruit juice.
- Stir into homemade ice pops or try it with ice cream, frozen yogurt or sherbet: Here’s a recipe for Lemon Basil Sherbet.
- Add to savory biscuits, breads and rolls.
- Stir fry with basil! Here’s a great example with this Chicken Stir-Fry with Basil.
For slow simmering with sauces, stews and soups, dried basil works best. To keep the flavor of fresh basil, use it raw or stir it into hot dishes just before serving.
When purchasing fresh basil, look for beautiful firm leaves that are not wilted or showing signs of discoloration. If you wrap fresh basil in a barely damp paper towel and store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, it should last for about four to five days. You can also purchase fresh basil with the root attached; just place root- side down in a glass of water and cover the leaves with a plastic bag. Change the water every couple of days and be sure to use the basil within a week. Got your own basil bias? What’s your favorite recipe? Let me know!