The Scent of Summer: Why We're Digging Basil This Season
There are a million reasons to love basil. For many, the smell of the fresh plant resonates with kitchen memories and tastes of homegrown cooking. While Italian cooking features the herb most recognizably, in pasta and pesto sauces, it originates in Thai, Indian, and Asian regions where it is used to add sweetness to meat dishes. Depending on the variety — including the more muted flavor of purple basil, the colorful punch of lemon basil, and the most commonly used sweet or Thai basil — the raw plant can have an almost licorice flavor, which contributes to its popularity in desserts and cocktails.
Beyond versatility in cooking, basil also contains numerous health benefits. Grinding fresh leaves into a paste combats certain acne-causing bacteria when used in face masks and makes skin glow with youthfulness. The antioxidant-rich plant also cleans the liver; restores the nerves; and comforts rheumatic pain, irritating skin conditions, sore muscles and joints, and earaches. Thanks to its effects on the body’s insulin activity, it’s even being studied to possibly defeat Type 2 diabetes and cancer cells.
Brett Wilps of the Pittsburgh Urban Gardening Project thinks outside the spice box for savory preparations with the superhero of herbs, such as including basil in salads of arugula, baby kale, spinach, and other garden greens. “It adds depth and brightness for a distinct, fresh flavor,” he says. The best time to plant the copious crop is in the cooler, early weeks of summer. Wilps suggests preserving your harvest, which can survive through late October, for the less viable winter months. Drying is the most common preservation method — either by air or in the oven — but recently picked leaves can also be frozen in ice cube trays. Once the ice melts, only the fresh basil remains, maintaining the flavor more than drying. “And it’s another great way to add garnish to a cocktail,” he says.
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Ricci Minella of Burgh Bites Cart combines basil, lemon juice, lemon zest, and mayonnaise for a delicious aioli base for many of his sandwiches. For dessert, Minella dresses Mercurio’s Italian basil gelato with homemade sweet tortilla chips and lemon marmalade!