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.
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!
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.
To dry the herb, gently gather up small bunches (basil bruises easily), tie the stems with string, and hang them upside down . . . in a dark, well-ventilated place with a temperature that ranges between 70 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, when the leaves crumble easily, strip them from the stalks and pack them whole into containers.
For a real treat, mix cider vinegar with the green basil varieties (or dark opal basil in white vinegar) to create a versatile and delicious herbal liquid. Bruise the leaves and stems of about 1/2 pound of fresh basil (use a rolling pin for the job) and place them in the bottom of a plastic pail with a tight-fitting lid (the kind that bulk peanut butter comes in). Pour a gallon of vinegar on top, put on the lid, and let the mixture steep for at least two weeks. Then strain off the liquid and bottle it ...along with a sprig or two of fresh basil for continued flavor.
There are more uses for this herb vinegar than you can shake a stick at: It makes an excellent (two calories per tablespoon) salad dressing. (Add tamari soy sauce and olive oil for extra taste and richness.) Fresh carrots, cucumbers, green peppers, summer squash, etc. can be marinated in the "basil-ade" to produce crunchy "overnight" pickles and a sprinkle of the vinegar mixture adds a subtle tanginess to your soups, stir-fry cooking, and casseroles.
And, by the way, an old New Mexico legend says that a bit of this fragrant herb — carried in your pocket — will attract money.
On top of that, it's long been rumored in Romania that if you offer a sprig of basil to the man or woman you fancy — and if the herb is accepted — true love will follow. Hindus consider the basilicum plant to be a pass into paradise!
Flavor, fortune, love, and paradise! Basil is hard to beat!
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