Here’s Terri on an herb we love… it always felt so straightforward before this…
Basil has a curiously contradictory folkloric heritage. To the Romanians, the gift (and acceptance!) of a basil sprig indicated an engagement, while Greeks thought basil represented hatred and poverty. In Egypt and Iran, basil was planted or scattered on the graves of the recently departed as a sign of love, while in Crete, basil was thought to represent the devil…but would be kept on the windows to ward him away. In the 16th century in England, it was particularly dangerous business handling basil. It was thought, by at least one person important enough to have his musings preserved, that basil sprigs put under a rock bred scorpions. Even worse, one physician claimed that if one breathed too deeply the scent of a basil plant, scorpions would infest the sniffer’s brain. Scorpions. In the brain. Meanwhile in Africa, basil protected against scorpions.
Editorial note: Basil does not produce scorpions. (Priestess response: Well, that’s a relief!)
This glorious herb has been cultivated for somewhere between 4,000-5,000 years, give or take whose history you decide to follow. It originated on the hills of India, growing wild in the lush heat, and made its way everywhere warm (or could go to seed and have the seeds protected during the winter), relatively quickly, especially for a plant that can’t travel on its own. America as a continent is a late-comer to the basil game, since basil did not reach these shores until the 1600s, when it was brought over with the pilgrims who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Even with 400 years of basil at our fingertips, we still primarily associate this herb with Mediterranean and/or Thai food.
Sweet basil delivers a flavor package that is at once soft, round, pungent, bitter, and delicate. It is also unforgiving in how it should be used; basil ought to be used fresh, and either raw (pesto, salads) or added at the end of the cooking time (pasta, Thai stir fries, everything else it’s cooked with) lest the heat destroy the volatile aromatics that give basil its distinctive flavor. Drying it…honestly, I’ve yet to see the point of dried basil, because to me it tastes like slightly licorice-y paper. And it doesn’t store well. If you wrap plucked leaves in damp (but not wet!) paper towels and put them somewhere cool (but not cold!), you may be able to hang on to the leaves for two days before they reduce themselves to slime. Maybe. Your best bet is to grow a pot on your windowsill. This way fresh basil is always at hand, and you can ward off Satan in the process.
Nutritionally, sweet basil offers a lot to the consumer. Basil is packed with Vitamin K, which is instrumental in protein modification and blood clotting. (Side note: if you are on blood thinners, maybe keep an eye on basil consumption.) Its essential oils have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, which help alleviate symptoms of arthritis and a sour gut. Even John Gerard, an herbalist writing in the 16th century, recognized basil’s ability to calm digestive upset. And it’s a great source of manganese and Vitamin A, which help promote cardiovascular health. As long as you don’t overheat the basil and destroy the essential oils that provide these benefits. See how it all goes together?
Perhaps the complex flavor profile and myriad health benefits contributed to the complicated social history that surrounds this herb. All I know is, when I smell it I get hungry. I’m usually happier having eaten something that’s basilicious, and I’ve never encountered even one scorpion while doing so.