Stroll through a farmers' market at the height of summer and you'll be tantalized by the sweet perfume of basil. This pungent herb brings a taste of the garden to summertime dishes around the city.
Basil's intoxicating aroma comes from several different essential oils, many of which show up in other herbs, including mint, clove, and anise. The unique scent of each basil variety--there are over 20--is represented by a specific ratio of its different aromatic components.
WHAT IS IT Basil is most commonly associated with Italian cuisine, but is also a popular herb in Southeast Asia. Sweet Italian basil is bright green, usually has large leaves, and has a sweet, clove-like flavoring. Genovese basil is the most popular cultivated variety, particularly for making pesto, the traditional sauce of Genoa. Thai basil can be recognized by its smaller leaves and purple stems. It is more pungent and has stronger notes of anise and mint than does sweet Italian basil. Thai basil is popularly used in Thai stir fries, curries, and the Vietnamese noodle soup pho.
HEALTH BENEFITS Basil packs one of the biggest antioxidant punches of any plant, boasting levels of phytochemicals much greater than found in most other herbs or even spinach and broccoli. Because of its powerful antioxidant activity, basil exhibits antiviral, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties. Some studies also suggest that basil extract significantly reduces blood pressure and inflammation. Basil grown in soil with higher nitrogen concentration has lower antioxidant potential, indicating that any health benefits may be greater for basil grown organically, which does not rely on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
SOURCING AND STORAGE Sweet Italian basil can be found at local farmers' markets during the summer; most grocery stores carry greenhouse varieties year-round. Thai basil is also available at most farmers' markets and small produce shops around San Francisco. More exotic basil varieties such as lemon basil are sometimes grown by select farms, particularly those that specialize in Asian produce. These can often be found at smaller farmers' markets and produce marts in the Sunset and Richmond districts. Basil is notoriously tricky to store. The delicate leaves easily turn brown when exposed to air in the refrigerator but wilt when left out at room temperature. Basil with its roots attached can be stored in a jar with water on the counter almost indefinitely. It also makes a lovely, fragrant bouquet for your kitchen. During the summer you can find rooted basil at Dirty Girl Produce or Madison Growers at local farmers' markets. If rooted basil isn't an option, you can trim the stems of regular basil (leaving them as long as possible) and place the bunch in a jar of fresh water outside of the fridge. Make sure the stems are submerged in at least two inches of water, but prevent any leaves from soaking in the water. If the air in your house is particularly dry, tie a plastic grocery bag around the leaves to preserve moisture. If you have a basil plant with very short stems, basil leaves will stay fresh for at least a few days in the refrigerator sealed in a dry, air-tight plastic zipper bag.
AT HOME Some of the best basil dishes are the simplest. Basil pairs beautifully with fresh or cooked summer tomatoes. Create a simple Caprese salad by sprinkling freshly sliced basil strips over thick-cut heirloom tomato and fresh mozzarella di bufala, then finish with olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, sea salt, and fresh ground black pepper. Basil is also a wonderful addition to salads, egg dishes, stir fries, desserts, even cocktails. Make a classic pesto by mashing fresh basil with olive oil, toasted pine nuts (substitute walnuts), lemon zest, and garlic with a mortar and pestle until smooth. Add grated Parmigiano Reggiano and pecorino cheese to create a creamier blend.
EATING OUT The restaurant Farina has perfected a classic Genovese pesto, tossing it with homemade handkerchief pasta. Pizzeria Delfina's traditional, note-perfect pizza Margherita features tomato, fior di latte mozzarella, and fresh basil. (Can't make up your mind? Have both: the restaurants are only steps away from each other on 18th street in the Mission.) For a different take try the basil gimlet at Rye bar. Owner Jon Gasparini told Edible SF the basil gimlet is their best selling drink at Rye, and we aren't a bit surprised. According to Gasparini, "The botanicals in the gin (citrus, fennel, cardamom, juniper) pair beautifully with basil, and the result is a drink that's bright, savory and nuanced."
Superfoods: Basil was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Edible San Francisco Magazine. © 2010 Edible San Francisco