Basil, the King of Herbs

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Tomiko Peirano

Tomiko Peirano › Tomiko has amassed decades of experience in the food industry, from her family's restaurant in Oregon's ...

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I adore basil. It tastes like licorice and grass with a dash of awesome. It smells like spice and comfort – and I would happily wear its perfume for the rest of my days.

And yet… I don’t really know that much about basil’s history. I know how to wash it, store it and eat it with abandon (growing up in an Italian restaurant can do that to a girl), but I know nothing about basil’s origins or lore.

Thankfully, Ecocentric Blog’s terrific on-going column “Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It” devoted a recent edition to basil. Reading through Katie Sweetman’s article, I picked up a handful of fun facts, helpful tips and a delicious-sounding recipe

Did you know:

The green leafy herb has a history steeped in folklore. In India, it was used to ward off evil and was considered sacred. Europeans in the Middle Ages thought that basil caused the spontaneous generation of scorpions and that even smelling basil could lead to an unfortunate case of scorpions in one’s brain. That said, should a scorpion sting you, folklore recommends basil as a cure … which could lead to more scorpions and more stings, but there you go.

I think I would gladly suffer brain scorpion’s for basil… or maybe that’s the brain scorpions talking.

I also learned that:

Basil is also known as the king of herbs. The provenance of this is murky, but the Greek word for king, basileus, lends itself to this connection. In fact, in addition to its common French name, basilic, basil is also known as l’herbe royale in French. But if you want to slander someone in France — perhaps picking up on basil’s unflattering folklore — the phrase to use is semer le basilic (“sow basil”).

In India, under British crown rule, Hindus were allowed to swear on holy basil (O. tenuiflorum) instead of the bible in court.

Sweetman has some good tips for storage and usage. She recommends freezing basil puree, a great way to have “fresh” basil handy year-round.

To make frozen basil puree, chop up basil that has been washed and patted dry. (This can be any amount as you can adjust the oil used.) Take chopped basil, put into bowl for mixing, and then add enough olive oil so that the oil is a 2:1 ratio (oil to basil). Mix carefully. Find a clean ice cube tray that you don’t mind getting olive oil and basil all over and spoon the mixture into the empty sections. Freeze. After cubes are solid, they can be stored in an airtight container or plastic bag for up to a year.

And that recipe I mentioned?

A quick and delicious summer dessert, fresh peaches pair well with the flavors of fresh basil and lavender. To make, cut up 5 ripe peaches into 3/4 inch slices. Place into a bowl, toss with a tablespoon of chopped basil and a tablespoon of chopped lavender. Squeeze a wedge of lemon over top, and fold ingredients together. This pairs deliciously with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.

Yes, please.

I think we all understand how important it is to know where your food comes from – how a vegetable was grown or how an animal was raised – but it’s also valuable to know your food’s history. Knowing the global and historical scope of what you’re about to eat just might make your next bite a little more satisfying and a lot more fun.

Click here to read the article in full.

Katie Sweetman is a graphic designer and writer at GRACE. She is the designer behind projects such as Cultivating the Web: High Tech Tools for a Sustainable Food Movement and Edible Brooklyn. Originally from Washington, DC, she now lives in Brooklyn. (from Ecocentric Blog)

Photo Credit: School Garden Weekly