15 Jun The Wonders of Basil
The quintessential herb of summer, basil adds its subtle magic to just about every kind of dish from appetizer to salad to dessert. A member of the mint family, basil brings a slightly sweet Mediterranean-inspired flavor to a range of dishes. Grow your own or pick some up at the local market and get cooking. Use fresh leaves in tomato dishes, soups, salads, sauces, and pasta. Its flavor blends well with parsley, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage. (Expert tip: For the fullest flavor, add fresh basil to dishes within the last 5 or 10 minutes of cooking time).
Countless Health Benefits
Not only yummy and fragrant but incredibly healthy, basil leaves hold many notable plant-derived chemical compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health-promoting properties. Every leaf contains much health benefiting essential oils that are known to have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Also, the herbs’ parts are low in calories and contain no cholesterol, but are a very rich source of many essential nutrients, minerals, and vitamins that are required for optimum health. Meanwhile, the herb contains exceptionally high levels of beta-carotene, vitamin A, cryptoxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin. These compounds help act as protective scavengers against oxygen-derived free radicals and reactive oxygen species that play a role in aging and various disease processes. Additionally, the vitamin K in basil is essential for many coagulant factors in the blood and plays a vital role in the bone strengthening function by helping the mineralization process in the bones. Basil leaves are also an excellent source of iron. Meanwhile, basil tea (brewed basil-water) helps relieve nausea and is thought to have mild antiseptic functions. Lastly, holy basil “has been found to help detoxify the liver,” explained Elizabeth Trattner, an integrative health-care practitioner in Bay Harbor, Florida.
Growing your own
Many of our readers grow basil at home (if you don’t, we bet after today you’ll consider it). Basil can be easily grown as a pot herb in the backyard. A woody, branching plant, basil is a warm-weather annual that grows very fast in 80-to-90 degree weather. When growing basil, note that two or three plants will yield plenty of fresh basil for a family of four — unless you plan to make pesto. (To make and freeze a winter’s supply of pesto, plant a dozen or more.) Many gardeners mix various types of basil in their flower beds, where it is ready for a quick harvest anytime. It is also great for containers.
This plant needs 6 to 8 hours of sun; in the South and Southwest, it benefits from afternoon shade. Set out plants at least 2 weeks after the last frost in spring; summer planting is okay, too. Space at the distance recommended on the label, which is generally 12 to 18 inches apart. Plants are very frost sensitive, so keep plants protected in case of a late cold spell. Basil likes rich, moist, but well-drained soil with a pH of 6 to 7. Because it’s harvested continually for lots of leaves, it needs a little fertilizer. When planting, add plenty of organic nutrients from compost, blood meal, or cottonseed meal to the soil. Feed every couple of weeks to help keep tender new leaves coming on as you pinch back the stem tips. If planting in a container, use a large pot to keep the plants from drying out quickly in hot weather. You may also want to add a water-retaining polymer to the potting soil to keep the soil evenly moist and extend the time between waterings.
You can dry basil leaves, but freezing it or using it in vinegar best preserves the herb’s flavor. You can also use it to flavor oils and pesto, which should be kept refrigerated or frozen. (Don’t keep fresh leaves in the refrigerator, though, as they will turn brown.) You can also keep cut stems fresh for a few days by putting the cut ends in water just like a cut flower. They will add a fresh basil fragrance to the air.