One of my favorite things about summer is not the beach or long lazy afternoons in the sun or even the explosion of color and perfume in my flower garden, although I love them all. My favorite thing about summer is basil. From the shape of the leaf to the delicate fragrance to the way it makes a dish come to life, there is, for me, no summer cooking without fresh basil. I smile each morning as I water the huge pot of it that grows outside my back door, easily in reach of a quick snip.
An aromatic annual plant native to India, basil has been revered by many cultures for many years, particularly ancient Greeks, who called it “basilikon,” meaning “royal.” While used worldwide, basil is used predominantly in Mediterranean, Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian cooking.
With about 60 varieties of this fabulous herb, you’ll find this stocky plant grows from 8 to 24 inches in height, with round or lance-shaped leaves which vary in color from green to reddish to purple. The leaves are quite fragile and lose their flavor after flowering at the tips of the stems, so it’s always best to harvest the leaves before the plant blossoms. The flavor of basil can vary with each variety, with the most popular being reminiscent of lemon, anise, clove, thyme and camphor…as well as good ole’ sweet basil, my personal favorite.
Basil is best fresh and in season…summer is its time, making it the quintessential seasoning for tomatoes. It also loves to be paired with garlic and onions and oh, how it loves lemon and olive oil. Used in everything from pasta to pesto, basil adds a delightful sparkle to almost any dish.
Ideally, (at least in my book) grow your own basil in your garden or on a window sill. Freshly snipped and used in cooking, the flavor is without peer. When buying fresh basil, look for leaves that are slightly shiny and very perky. Wilted basil is old and will wither within a day. Avoid blackened, soft leaves as they will rot the rest of the bunch. Once home, place the basil as you would a bouquet of flowers in a small glass of water. Loosely drape a plastic bag over the leaves and refrigerate. Basil will last several days stored in this manner.
When cooking with fresh basil, remember that the flavor is easily destroyed by heat, so always add it at the end of cooking to preserve its subtleties.
Believed to work in the body as an antiseptic, tonic and stomach aid, basil leaves can be steeped in boiled water for 10 minutes to make a tea that can aid in curing tummy troubles.
And finally, while summer is basil’s season, I find that I can winter my pot through the coldest days by simply placing on a sunny, warm window sill. Then I place it out in the sun come spring and it provides me with freshness all year long.