I love basil. There are so many flavor varieties, it's hard to choose a favorite, but most of us are familiar with sweet basil. No matter the varieties, they all contain the same magic. I didn't realize that when I first fell in love with it.
When the children were little we used to take them to the lake on weekends. Overlooking the lake was a restuarant that served the very best salads. One summer the chef purchased tomatoes from a locally grown organic farm; those tomatoes were the best ever. When it came time to choose a salad one evening, I asked the server who took our orders if I could simply have a tomato. The chef was quick to visit our table as soon as my order was placed and he asked what kind of lettuce I'd like with my tomato.
"No lettuce," I answered.
"How about a little mozzerella, a few herbs, a little oil."
The children were getting a little squirmy by then and my husband was hungry so I finally agreed to a little mozzerella, a few herbs and a tad of olive oil, just to hurry things along. I knew debating the merits of other additions to my tomato would be pushing the comfort zone of everybody else. I really only wanted a tomato.
It was heavenly. He cut that beautiful tomato into thick slices and placed them all in a row around the entire border of the salad plate. Between each slice of tomato, he placed a slice of fresh mozzerella. Sprinkled over the top was olive oil and on top of the oil I could see a fine layer of rosemary and basil. I know now that this is known as a Caprese salad. I didn't know that then. That was the beginning of my forever love affair with basil. I was already romantically inclined toward rosemary.
Basil, Ocimum basilicum, is a green leafy plant that originated in India and Asia, and made an appearance in the Mediterranean region during ancient times as well. How it made its way to my country is anybody's guess but I suspect it came over with the earliest settlers. In ancient times and in various cultures, it had already made its magic known. Here are some interesting indications:
* Because of its use in embalming, basil was a symbol of mourning in Greece.
* In some cultures basil was a sign of love and fidelity between young couples; in others, basil was considered black magic and was to be feared.
* The ancient Greeks and Romans thought basil would only grow if they screamed wild curses and shouted while sowing the seeds.
* Salome hid John the Baptist's head in a pot of basil to cover up the odor of its decomposition.
* In Italy it is a token of love, in Romania if a girl gives a sprig to her boyfriend, they are engaged, and a good Hindu goes to rest with a leaf on his breast as a passport to Paradise.
Of course those myths and legends only tell us that through the ages cultures have attributed strong powers to basil. Trust me, there are more of them. So where's the true magic? Well, let's take a look at the medicinal value:
* It's easy to identify by its strong and distinct scent because basil contains a volatile oil. Volatile oils are always strongly aromatic.
* It is also a source of vitamin A, magnesium, potassium, iron and calcium.
* The essential oil of basil has antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties.
* The antibacterial properties of fresh basil leaves and basil oil can be used to disinfect surfaces. When leaves are applied to wounds, they may eliminate infections.
* It is also used by herbalists for the treatment of nausea, motions sickness, indigestion, and respiratory problems.
* The high fiber content of the basil leaves and seeds are said to help prevent rapid blood sugar elevations after food consumption, useful in some cases of diabetes.
* The seeds also have been found to relieve constipation by acting as a bulk-forming laxative.
* Basil contains cinnamanic acid, which enhances circulation, stabilizes blood sugar, and improves breathing in those with respiratory disorders.
* Scientific research has shown that the volatile oils in basil, along with their antioxidant effects, create a health boost for our immune systems.
* It is scientifically known that basil is very high in antioxidants, especially when used as an extract or oil. These antioxidants can protect our bodies against damage associated with aging, skin ailments, and most forms of cancer.
* The main use of basil medicinally is as a natural anti-inflammatory. It is similar to the compounds found in oregano and medical marijuana, but without the 'high' associated with the latter. The compound that makes it useful as an anti-inflammatory also is thought to help combat rheumatoid arthritis.
Convinced yet? Well, there is one more thing; in addition to its culinary uses, basil is also used in perfumes, soaps, shampoos and dental preparations. Powerful, absolutely; tasty too. Here's a look at basil in the kitchen:
* This herb is a key ingredient for tomato sauces and pesto recipes.
* Italians favor pesto mixed with olive oil and used as a sauce for spaghetti.
* Another treat is to cut a hot crusty roll in half and add a dash of salt, olive oil, a few leaves of basil and slices of fresh tomatoes.
* Dress a tomato and mozzarella salad with shredded basil, sea salt and olive oil. (Caprese salad!)
* Basil goes well with sweet peppers, fish or meat dishes, wine-garlic sauces, chicken, in butter, eggs, and shellfish.
Most of us grow it in our gardens, but if you haven't tried that yet, it's easy to do. It's a member of the mint family and quite easy to grow in pots as well as directly in the ground. A good rule is to grow plants in well-prepared soil and harvest the leaves when young. Some experts don't recommend fertilizing the soil since this could lead to a more bushy plant at the expense of flavor. Discard blooms as they appear to preserve flavor in the leaves. Another magical property of basil, its seeds are often viable even after 10 years.
It's easy to preserve too, and can be done in any number of ways, though freezing is my favorite.
The leaves can be frozen in ziploc bags after it has been blanched briefly in boiling water. For long-term storage the Italians say their method works best: pack dry basil leaves in layers in glass jars. Place a pinch of salt between each layer. When full, pour oil to the top and seal tightly. This should keep indefinitely in your refrigerator or a cool cupboard.
One thing to remember, though, the volatile oils of dried basil are weak, so fresh basil is usually better in both our cooking and our healing treatments. The oils are not as weakened when frozen.
I'm a firm believer in knowing all I can about what goes into my body. Knowledge about the herbs and spices that have been around for years might lead us to realize that their use in our daily lives can help us to easily maintain good health. If you never have a problem with eyesight, then there's no need to wear glasses, is there? If we have our daily dose of magic herbs there might never be a need to worry about certain other health issues either. That's called preventative measures.
More than you wanted to know? Maybe, but there's a reason why herbs, like basil, have lasted throughout history, and a valid reason why they were once labeled as magic. It's simple, really. They are full of nutrition and health benefits, whether we realize it or not.
Let's keep looking for magic in plants!