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The most common variety of basil is sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum). While the taste of sweet basil is bright and pungent, there are other varieties that differ from this well-known taste, such as lemon basil, anise basil, and cinnamon basil, which all have names indicative of the respective flavor variations. Altogether, there are more than 60 different varieties of basil.
Basil is a bushy annual plant with green stems. Left alone, it can grow to a height of 2 feet; however, it is rarely allowed to reach this height, for savvy gardeners know that frequent pruning makes the plant bushier, thereby producing more leaves. The basil plant has round leaves that are often pointed. They are green in color, although some varieties feature hint of red or purple. In general, basil looks like little peppermint, which is not surprising since they belong to the same plant family.
Well known for its unique taste and fragrance, basil is a welcome addition to many foods. One of the best known uses of basil is as one of the key ingredients in pesto, a mixture of basil, pinenuts, and Parmesan cheese that is one of the famous dishes of Genoa, Italy. In addition to its use as an aromatic herb, the aromatic oil of sweet basil is used in cordials, cosmetics, perfume, and soaps.
Native to India, Africa, and Asia, basil is now cultivated extensively throughout much of the world after being spread by traders and explorers. In China, the medicinal use of basil can be traced back more than 3000 years. It is featured prominently in a number of the world's cuisines, including Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Laotian.
The name “basil” is derived from the Greek word basilikon, meaning “royal”, a word indicative of the ancient culture’s high respect for this herb. In addition to it’s regal heritage in Greece, basil has been revered in other cultures. Basil was utilized as a botanical for embalming bodies in ancient Egypt. And in India, It was a cherished sign of hospitality and is still a secret herb to the Hindus. In Italy, it was considered a symbol of love. Basil is also referred to as St. Joseph’s award to honor Joseph, the husband of the mother of Jesus.
Basil has many of the same medicinal effects as other members of the Mint family. Specifically, its uses mirror those of peppermint and spearmint, including use as a digestive aid, as a mild sedative, and for the treatment of headaches. The herb is still used in China for spasms of the intestinal tract, kidney area, and for circulation. Volatile oil of basil relaxes the smooth muscle of the intestines and dilate small blood vessels. The volatile oil of a variety of sweet basil has been shown to possess antibacterial as well as anthelmintic (anti worm) activities, which would make it effective in treating the intestinal ailments.
Research studies on basil have shown it to contain orientin and vicenin, two water-soluble flavonoids that protects cell structures as well as chromosomes from radiation and free radical damage. As such, basil provides important anti-cancer benefits.
SELECTION & STORAGE
Basil can often be found fresh in grocery stores. This is the easiest way to purchase and use basil, as it is much more aromatic when fresh. Look for crisp, vibrant green leaves with no signs of decay. Basil can also be easily grown in pots and can be kept inside for one year, pruned regularly to prevent flowering.
Fresh basil should be lightly rinsed and stored in the refrigerator wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel for up to one week. It may also be frozen, either whole or chopped, in airtight containers. Fresh basil can be also chopped or blended with olive oil and stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Frozen basil is good for three months.
Dried basil can be used if fresh basil is not available. Just as with other dried herbs, when purchasing dried basil, choose organically grown basil if possible, since organically grown herbs are much less likely to have been irradiated. Store dried basil in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark, dry place for maximum shelflife (about six months).
TIPS FOR USE
Basil adds a “clove like” taste to foods. It can be used alone, although it mixes well with other herbs and spices, such as garlic, thyme, and oregano. However, since the oils and basil are highly volatile, it is best to add the herb near the end of the cooking process, so as to remain its maximum essence and flavor.
Perhaps the best known use of basil is as an ingredient in pesto. basil is also a popular ingredient in tomato sauce.
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