Sunday, July 28, 2013

Basil: From Protection to Pesto

With its intense aroma, Basil is one of those herbs with such potent oils that a mere brush against the foliage releases an unmistakable burst of fragrance - an aroma which has been attributed to strengthening psychic awareness, clearing homes of negative vibrations and domestic tension, attracting love, money and luck and even guiding a soul into the afterlife.

A Magical Herb

Common basil (Ocimum basilicum), which is of the mint family, is an herb that has been cultivated from more than 5,000 years. It is native to Asia, and is thought to have originated in India. The word Basil comes from the Greek Basilikos, meaning "of kings/royalty". Basil represents many things in many different countries and cultures: Jewish folklore says that basil gives you strength when fasting; in Italy basil represented love; Africans once thought basil protected you from scorpions; in some European countries, they put basil in your hands after death to ensure safe travel into the afterlife.

Basil was widely used by the Ancient Egyptians, who prepared it, together with other essences, for religious ceremonies. It appears to have been used as an ingredient for the preparation of the balms used for mummification. In the Middle Ages, it was believed to hold magical properties and was used as a defense against "basilisk", a monster which resembled a poisonous serpent. Basil was probably introduced to Europe by Greeks and Romans, coming from the commercial routes which crossed the Middle East. Ancient Romans considered it the symbol of lovers, and it was also used as an aromatic herb in cooking.

In its homeland of India, the use of basil in cooking is quite limited, but a type of basil (Ocimum Sanctum or "holy basil"), known there as "Tulsi",  is considered to be a very sacred plant. In Hindu mythology, Tulsi symbolizes the goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, who is one of the religion's most important deities. The herb has been valued for centuries because of its benefits for the mind, body, and spirit, and produces a calming effect on the mind, making it an ideal stress reliever and is used in aromatherapy. In Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine, basil is used as a remedy for many diseases. 

In India it is also common to plant basil in order to check the salubrity of the soil - a hearty basil plant means healthy soil. Moreover, it is believed the presence of Tulsi can keep evil spirits away while attracting divine blessings. Because of this, it is often planted by the front door of a house.  The leaves are used during religious ceremonies to aid in family wellness. 

Medicinal Properties
Some studies have suggested that basil oil has traces of antitoxins and have the potential use for treating cancer. In India, basil is known to be used for the treatment of stress, asthma, diabetes and removing of pimples. It is also a source of vitamin K, iron, calcium, vitamin A, manganese, magnesium, vitamin C, and potassium. It is good for the heart, because it helps to prevent build-up in the arteries and fights free radicals. The magnesium helps blood vessels to relax, which increases blood circulation.

So many varieties to choose from

Fresh basil has a pungent flavor that some describe as a cross between licorice and cloves. It's a key herb in Mediterranean cooking, and essential to the delicious Italian pesto. Most varieties of basil have green leaves, but opal basil, is a beautiful purple color. Lemon basil and cinnamon basil have green leaves but their perfumed fragrance and flavor matches their respective names. 

Basil is a summer herb, but can be grown successfully inside during the winter in a sunny window. It's plentiful during summer months, and available year-round in many markets. Choose evenly colored leaves with no sign of wilting. 

Storage Tips 

Refrigerate basil, wrapped in barely damp paper towels and then in a plastic bag, for up to 4 days. Or store a bunch of basil, stems down, in a glass of water with a plastic bag over the leaves. Refrigerate in this manner for up to a week, changing the water every 2 days. To preserve fresh leaves, finely chop the cleaned basil and combine it with a small amount of olive oil. Freeze in tiny portions to flavor sauces, salad dressings, etc. 

Try these mouthwatering basil recipes: 

Strawberry-Basil Sangria
Fresh Peach-Basil Lemonade
Heavenly Basil Hummus
Traditional Pesto
Bruschetta with tomato and basil
Insalata Caprese
Gingered carrots with cumin and basil
Thai spicy eggplant with sweet basil

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