Hands down, one of my favorite herbs is basil, there is just something about it that adds a bit of zing or flavor that I never get tired of, and I am a firm believer that just about anything you add basil to is better as a result. Having only married into a family of Italian heritage, and not having any myself, I feel I have missed out on some significant basil eating opportunities, because while I may not be Italian by blood, I seem to share their love of this wonderful herb; Caprese salad, anyone? Or pesto which I have to say is something really phenomenal in my mind? Along with artichokes, my husband introduced me to pesto and can I just say that was a deciding factor in my decision to marry him.
Given the history and lore of basil, its only appropriate that its a herb I feel strongly about. The early Greeks and Romans thought basil was awful, in fact they associated the herb with hatred. Sandra Bowens, in About Basil tells of the medieval superstition that basil and scorpions were connected; if you grew a pot of basil, the scorpions would thrive beneath it. In fact, if you so much as smelled that sweet smell of basil, you would find scorpions growing in your brain! Basil is considered the king of herbs) harkens back to Greek mythology, as it was thought to have gotten its name from the basilisk, a terrifying half lizard, half dragon with a fatal stare.
Along the way, I discovered why I never have much success in growing basil, according to those Greeks and Romans, the most potent basil would only grow if the gardener ranted and swore the entire time. To that point, the French expression, semer le baslic (sowing basil) means to rant. When I grew my ill fated basil, I was not ranting, but in a state of eager anticipation thinking how I would use my basiI and consequently starved it from the fortitude it needed to thrive. Of course this makes me wonder what my mom does to get such incredible basil as her plants are really more like miniature trees.
Somewhere along the way the Italians’ animosity for this herb turned to love (sounds almost Shakespearean), and single maidens indicated their availablity with a sprig of basil in their hair. I’m convinced it was the scent that proved irresistible, scorpions or no. Regardless of how it was originally named, many cooks consider basil the “king of herbs” and they’ll get only firm agreement from me.
Since that first taste of basil, I was determine to master this sauce as my own, and with the bounty of the local farmers markets exposing me to so many varieties that I never new existed, I explored my options, and discovered how my pesto changes as a result of each tweak in basil varieties. You may be more worldly than me, but I was amazed at the varieties of basil that existed. The list below is by no means complete, but only a summary of the most popular varities.
Types of Basil
- Sweet basil – This fellow is the most common and when you think of pesto, this is variety that is most commonly used.
- Thai basil – sometimes called licorice base for its distinct licorice sent. The leaves take on a lovely burgundy hue.
- Genovese basil – similar to sweet basil
- Cinnamon basil – you guessed it , has a strong hint of cinnamon, may also go by the name Mexican spice basil.
- African blue basil has purple color in its leaves and a strong camphor scent
- Greek bush basil can be a beautiful ornamental plant as its a round glove with tiny leaves and a delicious scent.
- Licorice basil – also known as Persian basil or Anise basil. This basil has silvery leaves and a licorice like smell. This basil has the same chemical as anise. Thai basil can sometimes be called licorice basil.
- Spicy globe basil – the leaves may be small, but the flavor is not. I really enjoyed this one in a pesto.
- Purple ruffles basil – a dramatic purple colored basil with a more intense anise like flavor than the Genovese basil.
- Fino verde basil – this variety has small leaves and is more delicately flavored than its larger leaf kin. Pesto a bit on the mild side.
- Nufar basil is a variety of Genovese basil.
- Magical Michael – just an all around favorite in the kitchen
- Lettuce leaf basil – the leaves are so large they are used as wraps
- Holy Basil – this variety hails from India and is also known as sacred basil. Its common in Thai cooking
- Mammoth basil – no small leaves here, this basil is similar to the Genovese but with a stronger flavor.
- Mexican spice basil – another name for cinnamon basil.
- Red rubin basil – has an intesen magenta color and a flavor that tastes like sweet basil. Another good addition in the pesto.
- Dark opal basil – I confess to not remembering the specifics here, but it must be good as its an “award winning” basil from the University of Connecticut.
- Cuban basil – similar to sweet basil but with smaller leaves and a more intense flavor.
- Mrs. Burns lemon basil – similar to lemon basil with that familiar lemon scent
- Thai lemon basil has that citrus odor with a distinct balm-like flavor.
- Lemon basil – it actually has a bit of a lemon taste and is sweeter than some of the other basils. It’s popular in Indonesia so it may be called Indonesian basil. It also has less attractive name of hoary basil.
- Lime basil – similar to lemon basil.
- Osmin purple basil – a dramatic looking basil with shiny purple leaves complete with a jagged edge.
Flavor descriptors from Wikipedia.
Pesto is a sauce originating in Genoa in the Liguria region of northern Italy (pesto alla genovese). The name is derived from the Latin verb pestâ (“to pound, to crush”), and refers to the sauce’s crushed herbs and garlic. The English word pestle also comes from the same word, which is appropriate given to make pesto in the classic fashion a mortar and pestle are required. Note that like Mexican salsa, the name pesto is generic, so one man’s pesto might not be another’s. To make sure everyone is referring to the same type of pesto when talking the classic combo of basil, it is almost always referred to as pesto alla genovese.
Pesto is commonly used on pasta, traditionally with Mandilli de Sæa (Genovese for “silk handkerchiefs” which indicates how thin, almost transparent this pasta is required to be) close to lasagna, trofie or trenette. The pesto may sometimes used in minestrone, like the French do with their version called pistou.
If using the trofie, which reminds me of play dough when you roll it out, or the trennette version of pasta, it is traditional to add green beans and potatoes. In the town of Recco, fava beans may be added to the trofie pasta as well. source: Oretta Zanini de Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta, University of California Press
Pesto alla siciliana, sometimes called simply pesto rosso (red pesto) is the Sicilians answer to Genovese pesto. They added tomato, and substituted almonds for the pine nuts, and reduced the amount of basil.
Pesto alla calabrese is a sauce from Calabria and includes grilled bell peppers and black pepper which give the sauce a distinctive spicy taste.
A German variety uses ramsons (a type of wild garlic) leaves instead of basil.
Genovese immigrants to Argentina brought pesto recipes with them, which spread in to other parts of Latin America. A Peruvian variety, known as “Tallarines Verdes” (literally “Green Noodles”, from Italian tagliarini) is slightly creamier, and may include spinach. It may be served with roasted potatoes and sirloin steak.
Traditional pesto alla genovese is made with Genovese basil, salt, garlic, Ligurian extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts and a grated hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano or some combination which could include Grana Padano, Pecorino Sardo or Pecorino Romano).
Not so traditional
I’ve had pesto made with sun dried tomatoes, artichokes, roasted bell peppers, preserved lemon, mushrooms basically the combinations are only limited by ones imagination and what is in the pantry. The herbs can be mint, spinach, arugula, sage, or whatever else is on hand. Saveur asks, is it pesto without basil? , and the answer seems to be a resounding “yes!” The same with the nuts, some swear only pine nuts, while others say its equal parts pine nuts and walnuts, but I’ve seen peanuts, cashews, and a host of other nuts. Just thinking about it makes me, well nutty.
I’ve even managed to show my hubby a thing or two, as I was inspired to serve pesto with a squash I roasted. It was amazing, and now we prefer to eat our pesto this way. The sweetness of the squash (we like acorn or kaboucha) pairs beautifully with the pesto. I’ve also heard, but never tried substituting miso for the cheese and salt for a vegan version.
Finally, the traditional method as mentioned earlier called for using a pestle and mortar. I’m sorry to say that I never made pesto that way, I blame it on two things, one I am lazy and two I lost my large mortar and pestle in one of my moves and have not replaced them. When I first started making pesto I used a blender and that seems to be by far the most common technique. However, I’ve sensed learned, thanks to my Sophia Loren cookbook, about making pesto with the aid of a sharp knife or a mezzaluna, as Heidi Swanson does in her Italian Grandmother’s pesto recipe. We both share a preference for the different texture and that it looses its paste like consistency. If you’ve never made pesto this way, trust me it does not take that much longer, and is a great stress reliever chopping things into itty bitty bits.
I’ve long since stopped needlessly limiting myself to using basil strictly in savory dishes. I’ve found basil is nearly magical when used in sweet foods, which makes sense when you consider it is a member of the mint family. I love making basil infused simple syrup and adding it to freshly squeezed lemon or limeade, adding it to my morning smoothies. Peach and basil smoothies are bliss in the morning. With all the bounty of strawberries this summer, I made plenty of my strawberry basil sorbet, which is an enduring family favorite.
Strawberry Basil Sorbet
About 4 cups
1 c water
1 c sugar
1 c loosely packed fresh basil leaves
4 c quartered hulled fresh strawberries
2 T limoncello
Combine water and sugar in a sauce pan over medium heat and stir until the sugar is incorporated. Turn off heat and add the basil leaves. Let the pan cool to room temperature. Strain the leaves from the simple syrup. Puree quartered strawberries in blender until smooth. Add the simply syup and limoncello, and stir well. Chill mixture until cold, about 1 ½ hours. Transfer mixture to an ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer’s instructions. Spoon sorbet into container; cover and freeze until firm, about 4 hours.
Note: you could leave some fresh minced basil in the green looks gorgeous against the red of the strawberries. I’d add them at the end before you chill the mixture.
Other ideas: Thip of Bonbini! uses basil seeds to brilliant effect in her Basil Seed Drink on a Stick
NOTE: I’m looking for anyone interested in guest posting. If you want to talk about the food where you live or have something on your mind please let me know. These next few months are going to be hectic for me. I can cross one of my bucket list items off as I’ll start teaching at a local university next week, just one class on International Business and Strategy to compliment my consulting and then in October I have a bit of traveling going on, so I’d love some help if you want to try your hand or want to reach different readers. Let me know what you’d like to write about and when you think you could have it ready. Thanks for your help.