You know it's summer when basil is in bloom. You can walk down the aisles of the farmers market and smell the fragrant herb from three stalls away. But what kind of basil is it? There are a LOT of varieties of basil out there. Here are some you might encounter:
- Italian basil: what you probably picture when you think of basil
- Purple basil: Just like you're run-of-the-mill Italian basil, but the whole plant is purple (pictured at right)
- Thai basil: smaller leaves, purple stem and flowers, and a bit of spice in the taste (pictured below)
- Lettuce leaf basil: just like it sounds, the leaves look like lettuce leaves
- Cinnamon basil: a hint of cinnamon, more in the smell than the taste
Basil is technically inthe mint family, along with a lot of other aromatic herbs that may be familiar, like oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme.
In case you're growing your own basil (it's easy to do in a pot or window box), I want to share the best way to pick basil, so that it grows back bigger and better. Happily, there's a great video all about it:
The only thing I would add to the video is that scissors can be useful in picking, especially as plants get older and stems get more woody.
Whether you're growing it yourself, or buying it at your local market, you may have times when you need to keep basil fresh in your kitchen. Everyone has their own method, and I am no exception.
My basil preservation method is simple: trim the bottom of the stems and set them in a glass with a couple inches of cold water. Keep the basil bouquet in a cool place (refrigerator if that's the only option, though cool counter top is preferable) and refresh the water as-needed day to day.
But basil is best used right away; and there are a lot of scrumptious ways to use it.
Yup, let's start with the obvious. Basil is a popular (though not required -- check out garlic scape pesto) ingredient in pesto.
Generally pesto includes basil leaves (small supple stems are ok), olive oil, nuts (traditionally pine nuts, but almonds or walnuts work fine), garlic, and Parmesan cheese. It all goes in a food processor, add a little more of one thing or another, and -- poof -- you have pesto. If you're a fan of recipes with exact measurements, try this one.
Also, basil can be one of many leafy greens in pesto. Try mixing in collards or kale for deeper flavors and more nutrients. My friend at the farm suggests a two-to-one ratio of kale to basil.
Don't forget: pesto isn't just for pasta. At the farm we spread it on sandwiches, add it to soups, and of course, put it on squash-sta.
Soups, Salads & Sandwiches
Try a few leaves of basil or a slather of pesto in your sandwich. Tear up leaves with lettuce when making a salad or use pesto in your salad dressing. A drizzle of pesto on top of a soup adds flavor and makes for an impressive presentation.
Pesto isn't the only way to eat basil. Try using full leaves in your next pasta (I like to add them right after draining the noodles so they get wilted by the heat).
You don't have to have Thai Basil to use in your Thai cooking, but it doesn't hurt. Whatever variety you use, basil is a common flavor component in Thai cooking. Check out Thai Beef with Basil or Spicy Sesame Noodles with Chopped Peanuts and Thai Basil for some inspiration.