Cooking With Basil and its Role in Folk Lore

Learn how to harvest basil, create fresh basil recipes and the interesting folk lore surrounding the herb.

| September/October 1979

Lately, more and more people have begun to understand just how limited — in both variety and nutritional value — our "modern" diets have become. This realization has sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs ... those plants which — although not well-known today — were just one short generation ago, honored "guests" on the dinner tables and in the medicine chests of our grandparents' homes. In this regular feature, MOTHER EARTH NEWS will examine the availability, cultivation, and benefits of our forgotten vegetable foods and remedies... and — we hope — help prevent the loss of still another bit of ancestral lore. 

Basil - Ocimum Basilicum

Most of us know common basil (Ocimum basilicum) as an indispensable ingredient in Italian cooking, but few people have had the chance to experience the spicy burst of flavor that can only be found in fresh homegrown basil leaves.

If you're one of the unfortunates who's only known the herb in its store-bought state, you'll be glad to learn that there are several garden-ready varieties of this tender, versatile annual. My favorites include sweet green basil (best known for its culinary uses) dark opal basil (a smaller plant with purple-bronze foliage) and bush basil (a miniature version of sweet basil)  all of which will thrive if you plant them in rich, well-composted, fine soil.

To grow your own basilicum, simply sow the easy-to-germinate seed a quarter inch deep after all danger of frost is past . . . and keep the ground moist until the plant appears.

As the herb grows, pinch back the ends of the stems to promote bushier growth. Also, pick a few larger leaves here and there for fresh basil cookery. For instance, chop and throw the greenery into a fresh garden salad or stir it into scrambled eggs. Blend minced basil into a cheese sauce and serve over vegetables and rice or combine the herb with tomato wedges, wine vinegar, olive oil, and a touch of salt for an authentic Italian salad. You can even put a few basil leaves between two slices of whole wheat bread with a slab of cheese, tomato slices, and a dab of mayonnaise for a fresh herb sandwich!

How to Harvest Basil

Harvest your crop after the flower buds first appear and before they're fully open which is when the herb's volatile oil content and flavor are at their highest. (A gentle spray of water on the plants the day before picking will wash away most dust and dirt.) Cut your basil (in the early morning after the dew has dried) with pruning shears, leaving four inches of stem in the ground to grow and give you fresh leaves later in the season.

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