A relative of mint, with squarish stems about two feet high, oval leaves that are usually dark green with pointy ends, Basil was used by European royalty for millennia. It has many names and many types but is easy to cultivate and is great for cooking. Below is a tour of basil’s uses and history.
Types of Basil
Sweet basil is the most common culinary herb, but there are about 150 different types of basil. Fortunately the names indicate the taste: there’s lemon basil, licorice basil, cinnamon basil, and anise basil. Other varieties include lettuce leaf basil, which is great in salads. Ornamental basils include green ruffle basil and purple ruffle basil. Opal basil is a more moderate version of sweet basil while Holy basil is extremely pungent. Camphor basil is good for repelling moths and mosquitoes.
History & Folklore
The word “basileus” is Greek for king, which is where the herb was first associated with royalty. In Greece today it is used to scare away the “karkanzari,” souls banished to disturb the living. Medieval Italians feared the herb and there is a superstition that if one puts a basil leaf under a pot it will turn into a scorpion. During the Victorian era basil made a comeback and represented love and good wishes. In Haiti it was associated with the love goddess Erzulie and was placed on burning alters to foretell the fate of a relationship. Currently basil is said to bring luck in most cultures and to clear away negativity. Western Europeans generally consider it to have protective qualities and will sprinkle it in the four corners of a room.
Basil is an annual, it cannot withstand cold and must be replaced every year. It grows well once the ground is at least 50 degrees and does not do well in droughts. It is easy to grow from seed and takes about 3-7 days to germinate with good water and warm soil. The seeds need warmth to germinate. Basil should be planted one eighth of an inch deep and culled within about a one foot area. That means that once the seeds start sprouting it’s a good idea to leave the best seeds alone and pull out all the weak sprouts within a half a foot of the strong ones. Growing basil is similar to growing peppers, in fact they can grow near each other. In addition, basil will enhance the growth and taste of tomatoes and asparagus – the pungent smell keeps insects away. Do not plant basil near rue, rue is bitter and the plants will not grow near each other.
Leaves should be harvested while young, before the flowering tops open. When you harvest, take about a third of the length of the whole plant each time. Depending on temperature and rainfall you may be able to harvest once a month to once a week throughout the summer. Leaves can be frozen, dried, or stored in oil. It takes about four to six days for the leaves to dry on a drying rack or they usually respond well in a microwave if placed between paper towels on a high setting for one minute. Any heat will dissipate the oil in the basil leaves so never leave stored basil out in direct light or near the stove.
Basil is great to cook with but not for everybody – it has the flavor of pepper with a trace of mint or lemon, etc depending on the variety. Always add basil to your dish at the last minute so that the oil in the leaves will not have time to evaporate. It tastes great in a pesto or over chicken, fish, or steak. Enjoy!