Basil – One name but many varieties
One of the most popular herbs used in American and Italian cuisine is basil, sometimes referred to as “sweet basil” to distinguish it from other types of basil used around the world. When cooking Asian dishes, you have a greater variety to choose from depending upon what you are cooking; there is Thai, lemon and Holy basil to choose from. While most common varieties of basil are treated as annuals, some are perennial in warm, tropical climates, including holy basil and a cultivar known as ‘African Blue’. However, if you have a large shelf near a window, you can grow almost any variety all year long.
Most grocery stores now provide little packets of fresh vegetables for around $2 dollars. Ironically, at a store near our home, they sell good-sized plants for only a dollar more that not only will provide you with many times the amount of basil, but provides you with a virtual crop of basil. When buying the fresh whole basil, make sure the leaves are a full rich dark green with no blackened areas. If the leaves are turning brown or black, much of the flavor is gone and it may be spoiled. The fresh herb can be kept for a short time in plastic bags in the refrigerator, or longer if frozen, after quickly blanching in boiling water. As is the case with most dried herbs, it loses most of its flavor in the drying process; what little flavor remains tastes very different, with a weak coumarin flavor, like hay. For these reasons, I prefer to use the fresh version of the herb whenever possible, and in order to get the greatest impact from the basil, I add it at the last moment because cooking quickly destroys the flavor.
I enjoy making Thai dishes. The Thai use three types of basil in their cuisine: “Bai Horapa” (commonly basil), “Bai Gka-prow” (Thai Holy Basil) and “Bai Maeng-lak” (Lemon basil). Thai Holy Basil (Bai Gka-prow) is the most popular in Thai cuisine. It has a strong licorice flavor that is not as pronounced in traditional sweet basil, with purple stems. Thai Holy Basil has smaller, softer, slightly hairy leaves and an aroma akin to that of cloves. Another great characteristic is that its flavor is more stable under high or extended cooking temperatures than that of sweet basil. Thai basil has small narrow leaves and purple stems, with a mauve (pink-purple) flower. The leaves are also a bit stiffer and thicker and are not as pliable as the common sweet basil. It is harder to find these varieties at your local grocery store but they are typically available at most Asian markets in the produce section. Give them a try.
Try this delicious and easy to make Pesto sauce. Once you make it you will never by the prepackaged stuff again, unless you are too lazy to put the food processor bowl, top and blade in the dishwasher.
2 cups, fresh sweet basil leaves
2 large or 3 small cloves garlic, depending upon their strength
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts, yes they must be toasted
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste (I like lots of pepper)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Combine the basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Do not over process! You want to have some remaining texture of the nuts. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Make it a great day.
David Hall, CGC
Thyme for a Chef