Basil: The flavor of Italy and other places

Basil for pesto (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

It’s September — and cold weather is on its way. We’ve already had a mild frost, and though the next few days promise to be warmer, autumn is on its way. Before the frost hit, I hurried to the garden to harvest the basil.

We think of basil as an Italian herb – and without doubt it’s the most popular herb in Italy. Along with oregano and marjoram it is a key part of Italian seasoning mix. What would spaghetti sauce, pizza and pesto be without basil?

But basil traveled east as well as west on the spice routes. It is a popular seasoning in Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian cuisines.

Before its arrival in ancient Rome, basil trekked through Greece, where the herb was deemed so sacred that only the king was allowed to harvest it. The very name, Ocimum basilicum, is the same root as basilica and the Greek word for king (basileus). Today it is associated with St. Basil, or Agios Vassilis, a founder of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Basil looks a bit like peppermint, since they belong to the same plant family. Depending on the variety, the fragrant leaves may be rounded or pointed, smooth or ruffled, and range in color from a rich purple to pale moss green. There are more than 60 varieties! They vary in flavor as well as appearance; there is lemon basil, anise basil and cinnamon basil, for example. But the pungent taste of sweet basil is the best known.

The herb’s distinctive scent and flavor come from the essential oils found in its leaves. These volatile oils also have antibacterial properties known to impede several species of pathogenic bacteria that have become resistant to commonly used antibiotics. Eugenol, one of these oils, helps with inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohns’, IBS and colitis. The herb is also rich in flavonoids and antioxidants, vitamin A, and is a good source of the minerals iron, calcium, manganese and magnesium.

Basil is a perfect complement to fresh ripe tomatoes, garlic, and soft cheeses like Ricotta, brie or fresh mozzarella. The fragrant leaves provide flavor to salads, soups, stews, egg dishes, lamb, fish, and poultry. One traditional Italian salad is fresh basil layered between slices of tomato and Mozzarella cheese.

But nowhere does the herb shine more than in pesto, the classic basil sauce from Genoa in Italy’s Liguria region. The herb was crushed with a mortar and pestle, made to let go of its fragrance and flavor, and then blended with olive oil for the right consistency.

Early versions were made with just three ingredients: basil, olive oil, and salt. Modern versions add garlic, nuts and cheese. The traditional mortar and pestle used for pounding the basil has been replaced by the food processor. Recipes differ, but fresh basil and high quality olive oil make the best pesto.

For a great pasta sauce, use one-third to one-half cup of pesto for a half-pound of spaghetti. To form a smooth sauce, dilute the pesto with a tablespoon or two of water the pasta cooked in.

In addition to pasta, try pesto as a spread on bruschetta, bread or bagels, or as a sauce for poultry or fish. It is also great on grilled or roasted vegetables, like zucchini or green beans. Or use it on tomatoes with a sprinkling of feta cheese.

Basil is one of the most used herbs in my kitchen. I sprinkle it with a little feta cheese on fresh summer tomatoes. I add it to vinaigrette salad dressings. I season vegetables (like carrots, cauliflower and broccoli) with a blend of basil, garlic, salt and butter. I add it to vinaigrette salad dressings.

When cooking with basil, add the herb towards the end because its oils are so volatile. This keeps the distinctive flavor from fading.

Greek-Style Zucchini, Lamb and Herb Skillet

Ingredients:

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 onion

1 teaspoon salt

2 cloves garlic

1/2 pound ground lamb

3 small to medium zucchini

1 red or yellow bell pepper

6 or 8 fresh basil leaves

1 or 2 teaspoons fresh minced thyme

1 or 2 teaspoons fresh minced parsley

1/3 cup crumbled feta

Directions:

Peel and dice the onion. Heat oil in a large skillet to coat bottom. Add onion, sprinkle with salt, and cook over low heat 3 – 5 minutes. Peel and mince the garlic, add, and cook 1 minute. Add the lamb, stir and break up large pieces, and cook 7 – 8 minutes, or until no longer pink.

Wash the zucchini, cut off the ends, and slice about ¼” thick. Add to skillet, stir, cover, and conk 5 minutes. Wash pepper, remove seeds, dice and stir in. Wash and chop herbs, and add, along with feta. Cook 5 minutes to blend flavors. Serve over pasta or with potatoes or grain.

To make this dish vegetarian, substitute cooked beans (like garbanzo, black or navy) for the meat, and add at the end with herbs and feta. If you like it spicy, you can add hot pepper along with or in place of the bell pepper.

Serves two to three.

Basil Veggie Chicken

Ingredients:

A little oil for the pan

1 chicken breast

Salt & pepper

1 onion

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 to 2 cups broccoli florets

1 to 2 cups cauliflower florets

1 to 2 cups n baby carrots

1/2 to 1 cup broth or water

2 cloves garlic

1 cup diced cooked chicken

1 to 2 Tablespoons frozen basil (or fresh, or dried)

1/2 cup shredded cheese, like Parmesan or Cheddar or combination, optional

Directions:

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Add chicken breast; sprinkle with salt & pepper; cook two to four minutes on each side. Remove and set aside. When cool enough to handle, chop coarsely and check for doneness. (Or, use leftover diced cooked chicken or turkey and add at the end).

Peel and dice the onion; cook over low heat in same skillet 5 minutes or longer, to soften.

Add veggies and half a cup of broth. Cook, covered, stirring every five minutes or so, until tender. Add more broth if needed, and add reserved chicken towards the end to finish cooking.

Peel and mince the garlic. Stir into the skillet, along with basil.

When everything is cooked to desired tenderness, sprinkle with cheese and cook until cheese melts.

You can serve this over pasta, with a grain like quinoa or millet, or with potatoes; either side should be done in the same amount of time, or less. Or serve with crusty whole-grain bread or a French baguette.

Serves two to three.

Pasta with beans

and pesto

A complete vegetarian meal.

Ingredients:

1/3 pound pasta (such as linguini)

1 teaspoon salt, divided

1 teaspoon cooking oil

1 small onion

2 cups string beans (1 cup green, 1 cup wax)

2 cups cubed zucchini (1 cup green, 1 cup yellow)

1 cup fava beans

3/4 to 1 cup pesto

2-3 fresh tomatoes, diced

shredded cheese, for garnish

Directions:

Cook pasta in salted water according to package directions.

In the meanwhile, in large skillet, heat the oil to medium high. Peel and dice the onion, and add. Sprinkle lightly with salt, lower heat, and cook about 7 minutes. Add string beans, stir, cover, and cook another 7 minutes or so. Add the zucchini, stir again, sprinkle with a bit more salt, and cook, covered, until all vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in cooked or canned fava beans, cooked, drained pasta, and pesto; cook two to three minutes to combine flavors. Top with diced fresh tomatoes and shredded cheese, if desired.

Serve with a tossed salad of fresh greens.

Serves two to three.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as

Author Yvona Fast.

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