Turned into an icon of Italian cuisine, the basil It is a very widespread plant throughout Mediterranean cuisine, but with many different varieties and uses that make it one of the most popular aromatic herbs in the world. Its unmistakable aroma intoxicates just by touching the fresh leaves and adds a flavor fresh, sweet and very penetrating, much more subdued in the dry spice format. It can be consumed raw or cooked, and admits a multitude of pairings and different preparations.
This herb also has ornamental uses and it is a common crop in spring and summer gardens, as it grows best in warm temperatures and helps to repel mosquitoes and other insects, thus protecting more decorative and floral plants, such as geraniums. It is also used in the food industry and is even used, increasingly, in the sweet world.
What is basil?
We commonly call it an aromatic plant or a spice, but basil is specifically a grass of the Lamiaceae family, flowering plants of which there are hundreds of genera and several thousand different species. The one that concerns us today belongs to the genre Ocimum, typical of tropical climates, and its specific species is known as Ocimum basilicum.
It’s a plant annual perennial, which does not reach a great height although sometimes it can exceed 130 cm. Its thin stems are covered with leaves that are usually oval, wider or finer, sometimes serrated, with different shades of green to deep purple, almost black. The flowers develop from spikes in the upper part, tubular and white or purplish, of small size.
There are many varieties of basil, the so-called lettuce leaf the most common in the shops of our country, with a wider leaf and a fresh and sweet flavor. Plants with more elongated and thinner leaves also abound in Mediterranean regions, as well as holy or purple basil, with slightly serrated leaves.
In Asia these varieties are multiplying, with species with more intense and peculiar flavors, some even slightly spicy, widely used in spicy sauces such as Indian curries. It is very popular, and gaining relevance in the West, thai basil, somewhat more woody and with a lighter green color, with violet hues. Its flavor is aniseed, with hints of licorice, and spicy touches when consumed fresh.
Origins and cultivation of an ancient plant
The history of basil is somewhat lost in time, as various sources indicate that it was already known and cultivated several millennia ago. It is native to tropical climates, developing probably first in parts of Africa and, above all, of the Southeast Asian. It would come to Europe from India thanks to trade routes more than two thousand years ago, and its cultivation soon settled in Mediterranean areas.
Although the vast majority of denominations in different languages come from Greek βασιλικόν (“basilikón”), adapted from Latin to basilius, in Castilian the Arab heritage, so common in new ingredients introduced in the Peninsula since the High Middle Ages, especially with regard to herbs and spices, lasted.
Basil or alhábega derive from hispanic arabic alḥabáqa, which in turn comes from classical Arabic ḥabaqah. The leaves of this plant were used for culinary purposes but also medicinal and rituals. The ancient Egyptians resorted to its fragrant properties to embalm the dead, and in Classical Antiquity it was associated with funereal meanings as well as power and vigor or even fertility.
Today the production of basil is widespread throughout the world thanks to the fact that it develops well in protected crops and greenhouses, as it needs warm and tropical climates to grow fully. It does not withstand frost or very dry environments well, so it is usually a plant that is more present in gardens when the good spring weather arrives.
It is one of the aromatics that best adapt to the interior of domestic homes, both sown from seeds and from already grown plants. It needs a good substrate, constant humidity without puddles, and several hours of direct sunlight, always protected from cold or sudden changes in temperature. It is advisable to ensure that the pot does not suffer from the visit of caterpillars or snails, who are very fond of devouring the leaves.
Properties and benefits
Although we treat herbs as mere condiments or dressings, it must be remembered that aromatic herbs such as basil also have beneficial health properties. In addition to adding flavor and aroma without having to resort to caloric sauces, excess salt or added sugars, it stands out for its content in flavonoids, powerful antioxidants that protect against free radicals and prevent premature aging.
The same volatile components responsible for its aroma have antibacterial effects and are attributed to anti-inflammatory properties. Its consumption is also associated with beneficial effects on the digestive processes, and it is also attributed relaxing, antispasmodic and analgesic properties.
Highlight your content in vitamin C, beta-carotene and certain mineralsAlthough we normally consume so little of this herb that its nutrients are just one more addition to a healthy diet. Undoubtedly, the greatest benefit it brings us is culinary pleasure, which can have relaxing effects or as a stimulant of appetite, depending on the sensations that its aroma inspires in each person.
How to choose it, preserve it and use it in the kitchen
As with any fresh herb, once cut it is very delicate and it should be used quickly. If we buy it in portions, we must pay attention to the packaging date in addition to the date of preferential consumption, and check the condition of the leaves and the end of the stems. The greener, brighter and smoother, the better it will hold us.
It is not necessary to wash it until the moment of use, but we will lengthen its conservation if we wrap the leaves, with their stems, on very damp kitchen paper sheets, placed inside an airtight bag inside the fridge. The system is explained in more detail here.
To fully enjoy its aromatic properties, it is best to always add it at the end, or in the last moments of cooking, or directly before serving. The leaves can be consumed whole, directly raw -washed and dried very delicately-, or also chopped, cut into strips or crushed, if you want to release their oils and natural juices.
Another possibility is to use it to infuse and flavor broths, fresh water, soups, sauces or extra virgin olive oil, in which case we can apply heat, gently. The stems are edible although they are slightly bitter, as are the flowers, with a more subtle aroma, as well as decorative.
They can freeze raw leaves in buckets covered with water or oil, and it is possible dry them with dehydrator, in the oven at minimum power or leaving them hanging in the air, in a dry and warm environment. Dried basil thus becomes a long-lasting spice, although it loses part of its aromas and also its characteristic freshness.
The best recipes to take advantage of it
Basil undoubtedly enriches all kinds of pasta and pizza dishes, especially if the sauce abounds with vegetables, the tomato and fresh cheeses like mozzarella, for example in the caprese salad and its variants. But we can taste its aroma in combination with any Mediterranean-type dish, with vegetables of all kinds, for example in a ratatouille or ratatouille, or in savory cakes.
Also it pairs wonderfully with fruits and more citrus sauces with lemon, and pairs curiously well with creamy and dairy sauces, accompanying meat or fish, and also desserts and sweets. Starting from the classic pesto recipe, we can incorporate it into other sauces, minced and spreadable creams, and it can give a very tasty point to Mexican or Indian recipes, softening the spicy flavors of these.
Traditional Genoese pesto
We separate the basil leaves from the stem, we wash and dry them thoroughly. To do this, we spread them on a sheet of absorbent kitchen paper, place another sheet on top and press lightly with the palm of the hand, being careful not to break any sheet.
Removing all the water is an important step, so take it easy. While they dry, we peel the garlic cloves, cut them in two and remove the germ. We toast the pine nuts in a frying pan, without oil. We put all the ingredients in the glass of a food processor, along with half the oil and a pinch of salt, and crush.
When we have obtained a porridge and no pieces of pine nuts or basil are appreciated, we stop grinding to add the rest of the oil. We crush again to integrate, and we have our basil pesto ready to use.
More details in the full recipe.
Piccata with lemon with basil
- Ingredients for 4 people. 4 beef fillets of about 150 g not very thin, 2 lemons, 250 ml of vegetable broth, 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, 25 ml of extra virgin olive oil and something else to cook, 15 g (approx.) Of fresh basil , 50 ml of white wine, salt and black pepper.
- Elaboration. Let the meat temper a little. Remove any excess fat and dry with kitchen paper. Wash the lemons well and cut one of them in half. Peel the skin with a peeler or knife, removing strips without taking much of the white part. Cut into thin strips. Squeeze the juice and strain it. Emulsify with the 25 ml of oil, season and mix well with the skin. Cover the fillets with the marinade, cover with plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator for an hour; take them out 10 minutes before cooking. Preheat the oven to 60ºC. Heat a frying pan with oil and cook the fillets on the grill, drained, leaving them juicy. Reserve in the oven. Leave the pan on the heat at high temperature and add the wine, scraping the bottom well to remove the juices from the meat. When the alcohol evaporates, add all the marinade and the broth. Lower the heat and cook until it reduces a little. Dilute the cornstarch in a little cold water and add it to the pan. Continue cooking until thickened. Serve the meat …