There’s always been something interesting about leaves.
The majority of them cling to big trees of one species or another, just hanging there, high in the air, waving at the clouds, the birds, and maybe some passersby. They’re pretty to look at, providing shade and a lot of other pretty cool things, such as oxygen.
A different kind of leaf clings closer to the ground, cultivated specifically to be enjoyed in a different way; that is, in salads and other dishes.
The third type of leaf is so specialized that collectively, these leaves must have felt the need to change their names.
They’re called “herbs.”
Everyone has favorite herbs. My personal favorites are cilantro and basil. Their perfume is so fragrant that you know when they’re in the room (even more when they’re chopped). Just a whiff of either brings my mind to pleasant places I remember and dishes I love to make–and love, even more, to eat.
Basil also has some special culinary memories for me that go way beyond the leaf itself.
There was a time back in the early 80s that an ambitious gal named Marilyn Hampstead owned a property and business in Parma, Michigan that she named Fox Hill Farms. Among all the many herbs at Fox Hill Farms, Marilyn loved basil. She even wrote a book about basil and held a popular basil festival each year on her farm, where Detroit’s MOST celebrated chefs created recipes and served samples of their favorite basil recipes. The Pesto Challenge was THE highlight of the weekend.
Marilyn also developed basil sub-cultivars that were only found in Fox Hill Farms’ gardens. One of over a dozen basil varieties, her own Silver Fox Basil was developed right on the farm; it was her pride and joy.
Sadly, following a fire at the farm and some personal trials, the farm is no longer, but the memories of my visits and those great basil events at Fox Hill Farms live on in my mind whenever I smell fresh basil at Nino’s. In memory of her farm, here’s my personal recipe for pesto. Sweet Basil Pesto.
If you’ve never tasted fresh basil, you owe it to yourself to try it in a few recipes.
Originally native to India and other tropical regions of Asia, the unmistakable, sweet and slightly pungent flavor of basil has a somewhat anise (licorice) flavor and is (in my opinion) showing its best flavor foot forward when added to recipes at the last moment or used in dishes that are not cooked for long. It’s very popular both in Italian cuisine and in Asian countries where it is occasionally paired with mint.
Nicknamed “The King of Herbs” partially because the word basil comes from the Greek word basileus, meaning “king,” basil boasts over 150 cultivars. The most common is Sweet Basil.
How to Store Fresh Basil:
The fresh basil can be kept for a week to 10 days, wrapped lightly in a damp paper towel in your refrigerator (like thyme) and then placed within a plastic bag or a plastic storage container in your refrigerator. For a longer life, you can freeze basil by rolling the fresh leaves into a tube-like cigar shape, over-wrapping it in plastic film followed by foil, and finally, freezing it. To use it from the frozen state, just cut a piece off the “basil cigar,” and thaw it. The leaves will be darkened and limp, but much of the original flavor will shine through. Dry basil on the other hand, loses much of its anise-like flavor and has a taste more reminiscent of hay. I use it more as a background flavor mixed with other herbs but avoid using dry basil alone to create a true basil flavor in recipes.
Among the more interesting uses for basil are in ice cream, mashed potatoes, chocolate and deep-fried in full-leaf form as a garnishment.
A Favorite Basil Recipe
We have a great deal of recipes using basil on our Nino’s website. One in particular, our Eggplant Rollatini recipe, uses basil pesto flavored angel hair pasta stuffed within thin slices of breaded, pan-fried eggplant. You’ll really LOVE this recipe. It is one of my very favorite Italian dishes and believe it or not, it’s vegetarian!