Herb and Spice of the Week – Basil

June 5, 2014 at 6:11 AM | Posted in spices and herbs | 1 Comment
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Dried basil leaves

Dried basil leaves

Basil, Thai basil, or sweet basil, is a common name for the culinary herb Ocimum basilicum (pronounced /ˈbæzɪl/, /ˈbeːzɪl/, or ‘bɑçɨl/ of the family Lamiaceae (mints), sometimes known as Saint Joseph’s Wort in some English-speaking countries.

Basil is originally native to India, having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years, but was thoroughly familiar to Theophrastus and Dioscorides. It is a half-hardy annual plant, best known as a culinary herb prominently featured in Italian cuisine, and also plays a major role in Southeast Asian cuisines of Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the cuisine of Taiwan. Depending on the species and cultivar, the leaves may taste somewhat like anise, with a strong, pungent, often sweet smell.

There are many varieties of Ocimum basilicum, as well as several related species or species hybrids also called basil. The type used in Italian food is typically called sweet basil, as opposed to Thai basil (O. basilicum var. thyrsiflora), lemon basil (O. X citriodorum) and holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), which are used in Asia. While most common varieties of basil are treated as annuals, some are perennial in warm, tropical climates, including holy basil and a cultivar known as ‘African Blue’.

 

 

 

Most commercially available basils are cultivars of sweet basil. There are over 160 named cultivars available and more new ones every year. There are also a number of species sold. Here are some basils commonly sold in the USA.

 

* African blue basil (Ocimum basilicum X O. kilimandscharicum)
* Anise basil or Persian basil (Licorice basil || O. basilicum ‘Licorice’||)
* Camphor basil, African basil (O. kilimandscharicum)
* Cinnamon basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’)
* Dark opal basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Dark Opal’)
* Globe basil, dwarf basil, French basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Minimum’)
* Hoary basil (Ocimum americanum formerly known as O. canum)
* Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum, formerly known a O. sanctum)
* Spice Basil (a cultivar of Ocimum americanum, which is sometimes sold as Holy Basil)
* Lemon basil (Ocimum americanum)
* Lettuce leaf basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Crispum’)
* Purple basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Purpurescens’)
* Queen of Siam basil (Ocimum basilicum citriodorum)
* Rubin basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Rubin’)

 

 

 

Basil sprout at an early stage

Basil sprout at an early stage

Basil is commonly used fresh in cooked recipes. In general, it is added at the last moment, as cooking quickly destroys the flavor. The fresh herb can be kept for a short time in plastic bags in the refrigerator, or for a longer period in the freezer, after being blanched quickly in boiling water. The dried herb also loses most of its flavor, and what little flavor remains tastes very different, with a weak coumarin flavor, like hay.

Basil is one of the main ingredients in pesto—a green Italian oil-and-herb sauce. Its other main ingredients are olive oil, garlic, and pine nuts.

The most commonly used Mediterranean basil cultivars are “Genovese”, “Purple Ruffles”, “Mammoth”, “Cinnamon”, “Lemon”, “Globe”, and “African Blue”. The Chinese also use fresh or dried basils in soups and other foods. In Taiwan, people add fresh basil leaves to thick soups. hey also eat fried chicken with deep-fried basil leaves. Basil (most commonly Thai basil) is commonly steeped in cream or milk to create an interesting flavor in ice cream or chocolates (such as truffles). The leaves are not the only part of basil used in culinary applications, the flower buds have a more subtle flavor and they are edible.

Thai basil is also a condiment in the Vietnamese noodle soup, phở.

 

 

 
Recently, there has been much research into the health benefits conferred by the essential oils found in basil. Scientific studies in vitro have established that compounds in basil oil have potent antioxidant, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties, and potential for use in treating cancer. In addition, basil has been shown to decrease the occurrence of platelet aggregation and experimental thrombus in mice. It is traditionally used for supplementary treatment of stress, asthma and diabetes in India.

Basil, like other aromatic plants such as fennel and tarragon, contains estragole, a known carcinogen and teratogen in rats and mice. While human effects are currently unstudied, extrapolation using body weight from the rodent experiments indicates that 100–1000 times the normal anticipated exposure still probably produces a minimal cancer risk.

 

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