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The name "basil" is derived from the old Greek word basilikohn, which means “royal.”
A member of the mint family, this vibrant, aromatic herb is best known for adding wonderfully fresh flavor to tomato sauce, Caprese Salad and other Italian dishes. While most of us associate basil with Italy and other Mediterranean countries, it actually originated in India. Via the ancient spice routes, basil traveled to Europe and also spread to other parts of Asia, including Thailand, where it is still an integral ingredient in silken Thai curries.
There are more than twelve varieties of fresh basil cultivated for culinary use, but Sweet and Genoa (best for pesto) are most commonly found at the market. Their broad, fragrant, deep green leaves have a flavor described as a cross between licorice and cloves. Some other varieties, including Lemon, Cinnamon and Persian Anise Basil, have names that reveal their different underlying tastes.
Basil is also sold in dried form, but the flavor and aroma of these grayish-green sprinkles bear little resemblance to the fresh leaves.
Basil is plentiful in the summer months, but it is available in many markets year-round. Look for firm, evenly colored leaves without black spots or signs of wilting.
Trim 1/4 inch off the stems and place in a container of water. Loosely cover the leaves with a plastic food storage bag and place in the refrigerator. Change the water every two days and your basil should last up to a week. If you plan to use your basil within a day of purchasing, you can leave your container out on the counter like fresh flowers.
If you have more leaves than you can use, try freezing them into "basil ice cubes" for later use. Combine two cups fresh basil and 1/2 cup olive oil in a food processor and pour the mixture into ice cube trays. Once frozen, pop out and store in a freezer bag. When cooking, simply add a cube to your soups, sauces and sautés for fresh basil flavor anytime.
Carefully rinse basil with cold water and pat dry with paper towel. Then strip the leaves from the stems. Because this herb is delicate, it's best to tear it into smaller pieces with your fingers instead of chopping. If presentation is important, you can use a knife to make chiffonade, or long strips. Stack leaves on top of each other, roll them up into a tube and cut crosswise into thin slices. Now you're ready to enjoy basil with tomatoes, salads, fresh mozzarella and brie. Make a delicious butter spread for rolls by mixing into softened butter. Or add to warm dishes such as pasta, stir-fry or eggs during the last few moments of cooking.
Try one of our favorite basil recipes:
Italian Pesto Sauce
Basil Chicken in Coconut-Curry Sauce
Steve's Tomato-Basil Soup
beans, bread, brie, butter