If You're Not Into Basil, What's Up?

Basil is considered the "King of Herbs" by many chef's.

The round, often pointed leaves of the basil plant looks a lot like peppermint to which it is related. Its highly fragrant leaves are used as a seasoning herb for a variety of foods like the main ingredient in pesto, the mixture of basil, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese. I for one, can't imagine cooking a meal in my kitchen with out fresh basil. I grow sweet, lemon and Thai. Basil is an easy herb to grow. It will grow both inside and outdoors, but does better outside. Basil thrives in the sunshine. Bottom leaves that become yellow is an indication that the plant either needs less fertilizer or more sunlight. First a little history. Basil is originally native to India and other tropical regions of Asia, having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years.

 The word basil comes from the Greek "basileus", meaning "king", as it is believed to have grown above the spot where St. Constantine and his mother St. Helen discovered the Holy Cross. This is the reason that it is now being used in the preparation of the holy water in Greek Orthodox Churches. Pots of basil are kept around the alter for their religious healing that the Greeks believe will take place. Basil was also used by the Greek and English royalty for their baths, and medicine. Basil is still referred to as "the king of herbs" from world-renowned chefs. In India where it grew originally, it was held in great admiration and was actually used in courtrooms to have the Indians swear their oaths upon. In Italy however, basil symbolizes love. When an Italian suitor wanted to show his love he would place a sprig of basil in his hair to win his hearts desire. It is the same in Mexico where people would keep basil in their pockets in hopes that the man or woman that they loved would return their love forever. In Romanina, they followed much of the same legend, where the man would give basil to his love and they would officially be engaged. In ancient Rome basil has also long been revered. They called it Basilescus, which refers to the Basilisk, the fire-breathing dragon. The legend says, if you took basil every day then it would ward off attacks from the beast. On the Greek island of Crete, basil was considered an emblem of the devil and was placed on most window-ledges as a charm against his influence. For many cultures, and countries basil was  much more than an herb to eat.  It was a way of life. Basil was not introduced in Britain until the 16th century, and the British in turn brought it to North America, via the Massachusetts Bay Colony where it was introduced in 1621. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes speculations that basil may have been used in "some royal bath, or as a  medicine."

 Today mostly basil is commonly used fresh in cooking. In general it's spice added at the last moment, as over-cooking destroys the flavor. The dried herb in jars resembling hay has lost most of its flavor. It's mostly aroma,and what little flavor remains tastes very different, a weak flavor. I say don't use it, your only cheating your meals of this sensational herb. There are over 160 varieties of this herb. Here are some of the more popular. I've highlighted in blue the flavors that I grow, and cook with;

Common name Species and cultivars Description
Sweet basil O. basilicum With a strong clove scent when fresh.
Lettuce leaf basil O. basilicum 'Lettuce Leaf' Has leaves so large they are sometimes used in salads.
Mammoth basil O. basilicum 'Mammoth' Another large-leaf variety, stronger flavor than sweet Genovese.
Genovese basil O. basilicum 'Genovese Gigante' Almost as popular as sweet basil, with similar flavor.
Nufar basil O. basilicum 'Nufar F1' Variety of Genovese resistant to fusarium wilt.
Spicy globe basil O. basilicum 'Spicy Globe' Grows in a bush form, very small leaves, strong flavor.
Greek Yevani basil O. basilicum 'Greek Yevani' Organically grown version of Spicy globe basil.
Fino verde basil O. basilicum piccolo Small, narrow leaves, sweeter, less pungent smell than larger leaved varieties.
Boxwood basil O. basilicum 'Boxwood' Grows tightly like boxwood, very small leaves, strong flavor, great for pestos.
Purple ruffles basil O. basilicum 'Purple Ruffles' Solid purple, rich and spicy and a little more anise-like than the flavor of Genovese Basil.
Magical Michael O. basilicum 'Magical Michael' Award-winning hybrid with an uncommon degree of uniformity, and nice flavor for culinary use.
Dark opal basil O. basilicum 'Purpurascens' Award-winning variety, developed at the University of Connecticut in the 1950s.
Red rubin basil O. basilicum 'Red Rubin' Strong magenta color, similar flavor to sweet basil, also called Opal basil.
Osmin purple basil O. basilicum 'Osmin Purple' Dark shiny purple with a jagged edge on the leaves, smaller leaves than red rubin.
Cuban basil O. basilicum Similar to sweet basil, with smaller leaves and stronger flavor, grown from cuttings.
Thai basil O. basilicum var. thyrsiflorum Called Ho-ra-pa  in Thai, gets its scent of licorice from estragole.
'Siam Queen' O. basilicum var. thyrsiflorum 'Siam Queen'[2 A named cultivar of Thai Basil
Cinnamon basil O. basilicum 'Cinnamon' Also called Mexican spice basil, with a strong scent of cinnamate, the same chemical as in cinnamon. Has purple flowers.
Licorice basil O. basilicum 'Licorice' Also known as Anise basil or Persian basil, silvery leaves, spicy licorice smell comes from the same chemical as in anise, anethole. Thai basil is also sometimes called Licorice basil.
Mrs. Burns lemon basil O. basilicum var. citriodora 'Mrs. Burns' Clean, aromatic lemon scent, similar to lemon basil.

Research studies on basil have shown unique health-protecting effects in two basic areas, basil's flavonoids and volatile oils. The unique array of active constituents called flavonoids found in basil provide protection at the cellular level. Orientin and Vicenin are two water-soluble flavonoids that have been of particular interest in basil, and in studies on human white blood cells, these components of basil protect cell structures as well as chromosomes from radiation and oxygen-based damage. In addition, basil has been shown to provide protection against unwanted bacterial growth. These anti-bacterial properties of basil are not associated with its unique flavonoids, but instead with its volatile oils, which contain estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene. Lab studies show the effectiveness of basil in restricting growth of numerous bacteria, including : Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O:157:H7, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Essential oil of basil, obtained from its leaves, has demonstrated the ability to inhibit several species of pathogenic bacteria that have become resistant to commonly used antibiotic drugs. In a study published in the July 2003 issue of the Journal of Microbiology Methods, essential oil of basil was even found to inhibit strains of bacteria from the genera Staphylococcus, Enterococcus and Pseudomonas, all of which are not only widespread, but now pose serious treatment difficulties because they have developed a high level of resistance to treatment with antibiotic drugs.

Studies published in the February 2004 issue of Food Microbiology, have shown that washing produce in solution containing  basil or essential oil (at the very low concentration of just 1%) resulted in dropping the number of Shigella, an infectious bacteria that triggers diarrhea and may cause significant intestinal damage, below the point at which it could be detected. While scientists use this research to try to develop natural food preservatives, it makes good sense to include basil in more of your recipes, particularly for foods that are not cooked such as salads. So adding basil to your next vinaigrette will not only enhance the flavor of your fresh greens, but will help ensure that the fresh produce you consume is safe to eat.
The eugenol component of basil's volatile oils has been the subject of extensive study, since this substance can block the activity of an enzyme in the body called cyclooxygenase (COX), like many non-steriodal over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (NSAID'S), including aspirin and ibuprofen. This enzyme-inhibiting effect of the eugenol in basil qualifies basil as an "anti-inflammatory" food that can provide important healing benefits along with symptomatic relief for individuals with inflammatory health problems like rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel conditions. Basil is a very good source of Vitamin A, through its concentration of carotenoids such as beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a powerful anti-oxidant, and not only protects epithelial cells (the cells that form the lining of numerous body structures including the blood vessels) from free radical damage, but also helps prevent free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol in the blood stream. Only after it has been oxidized does cholesterol build up in blood vessel walls, initiating the development of atherosclerosis, whose end result can be a heart attack or stroke. Free radical damage is a contributing factor in many other conditions as well, including asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. The beta-carotene found in basil may help to lessen the progression of these conditions while protecting cells from further damage. Basil is also a good source of magnesium, which promotes cardiovascular health by prompting muscles and blood vessels to relax, thus improving blood flow and lessening the risk of irregular heart rhythms or a spasming of the heart muscle or a blood vessel. Basil is also excellent source of vitamin K and a very good source of iron, and calcium. In addition, basil is a good source of dietary fiber, manganese, magnesium, vitamin C and potassium.

Basil is a great plant as you can see to have in your garden or even potted in your house. Plants are easily available at your local grocery store or neighborhood garden nursery. Don't miss out, spice your meals with some fresh basil today. Good Luck...

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