This Spring’s Featured Fresh Herb is Basil.
Basil belongs to the family Lamiaceae (aka the mint family), to which rosemary, lavender, thyme, marjoram, oregano, mint and catnip also belong.
The botanical name for basil is Ocimum basilicum. The genus Ocimum comes from the Greek word Okimon, meaning smell, and the species, basilicum, is the Latin translation of the Greek word basilicon, meaning kingly.
Also in Latin, the word for a tiny venomous serpent monster, basiliscus, and the herb are similar. This association is likely what led to the superstition that basil, when crushed under a pot or brick, turns into a scorpion. Some used to believe that even the smell of basil could cause the growth of a scorpion in the brain.
This “king of herbs” is believed to have originally been cultivated in India over 5000 years ago. From there it spread to the rest of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America, where it has reportedly been used for over 2000 years.
Each variety of basil has its own distinctive flavor. These flavors are created by the proportions of essential oils in the plant.
Sweet Genovese basil is most commonly found in US markets and is used in Italian recipes. Sweet basil is high in the clove-like essential oil eugenol, and has a mild flavor.
Lemon basil and lime basil have citrus flavors from citral and limonene. Thai basil and purple basil taste like licorice (or anise) from the essential oil anethole.
Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is a revered herb in Indian ayurvedic medicine and Hinduism. Holy Basil is considered an adaptogen, increasing the body’s resistance to physical, chemical or environmental stress. It is believed to be the avatar of the Hindu goddess of fortune and prosperity, Lakshmi, who, according to legend, dwells on a lotus flower and is transported by owls. The herb is commonly grown outside homes and temples in India. 4
There are many beliefs and rituals associated with basil.
Orthodox Christian churches (in Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia) use basil branches to sprinkle holy water for blessings.
Basil came to represent love in Italy, Portugal and Romania. Lovers exchanged sprigs of basil, and wore them in their hair as a sign of dedication.
Conversely, basil has been associated with death in some cultures. Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Indian cultures believed that basil helped ensure the dead and dying reach heaven.
Basil is prominently featured in Italian and Southeast Asian (including Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam) cuisines.
In Italy, fresh basil is pounded with garlic, nuts, salt, olive oil and/or grated hard cheese by a mortar and pestle to make pesto. Pestos vary by the ingredients traditionally accessible and affordable in their region. Fresh and dried basil leaves garnish and season pizzas, pastas, salads and sauces.
In Asia, basil leaves are most commonly used fresh or fried, but also dried. They are added to soups, curries, noodles and stir-fries, and steeped in ice cream bases.
Basil seeds are often used in Asian drinks and desserts. The seeds are soaked in water until they become mucilaginous, then added. 5
This Winter’s Recipe is for Basil Pesto. The word pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare, which means to pound or crush, traditionally in a marble mortar using a wooden pestle. Historic journals date pesto back to as early as the 1600’s in Italy.
Young basil leaves are preferred for pesto in Italy for their delicate flavor, free of the licorice notes that become stronger with age.
Our pesto recipe is based on that of Genoa of Liguria, Italy. Instead of spooned over pasta, it crowns roasted crimini mushrooms. 8
1 large bunch or box fresh basil, stems removed
handful of pistachios, pine nuts, almonds or walnuts
1-5 cloves garlic, minced, to taste
nutritional yeast, miso paste or finely grated pecorino/parmesan cheese, to taste
zest and juice of 1/4 to 1/2 lemon, to taste
enough extra virgin olive oil to allow basil to breakdown into spread consistency
salt to taste
ground black pepper to taste
Optional: pound of crimini mushrooms, stems removed, tossed in olive oil and salt and roasted