Most closely associated with Mediterranean cooking but also very prevalent in Asian food, the herb basil has a sweet, strong aroma and flavour. There are three main Mediterranean types: sweet, with large green leaves; Greek, with smaller leaves and a peppery undertone; and purple, whose dark leaves have a milder flavour.
Asian varieties include lemon basil, which has a citrus note and smaller leaves; Thai, like sweet basil, but stronger; and holy basil, spicy and intense, and unusual in that it's best when cooked, rather than raw.
A study by researchers at Purdue University revealed that basil "contains a wide range of essential oils rich in phenolic compounds and a wide array of other natural products including polyphenols such as flavonoids and anthocyanins."
The herb contains high quantitites of (E)-beta-caryophyllene (BCP), which may be useful in treating arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases, according to research conducted at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
Reduce inflammation and swelling - a study presented at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's annual event, revealed that "extracts of O. tenuiflorm (Holy basil) were shown to reduce swelling by up to 73%, 24 hours after treatment".
Anti-aging properties - according to research presented at the British Pharmaceutical Conference (BPC) in Manchester, basil has properties that can help prevent the harmful effects of aging. Holy basil extract was effective at killing off harmful molecules and preventing damage caused by some free radicals in the liver, brain and heart.
Rich in antioxidants - results of a study published in the Journal of Advanced Pharmacy Education & Research showed that ethanol extract Ocimum basilicum had more antioxidant activity than standard antioxidants.
Nutritional value of basil per 100 g (3.5 oz):
Energy - 94 kJ (22 kcal)
Carbohydrates - 2.65 g
Dietary fiber - 1.6 g
Fat - 0.64 g
Protein - 3.15 g
Water - 92.06 g
Vitamin A - 264 μg
Thiamine - 0.034 μg
Riboflavin - 0.076 mg
Niacin - 0.902 mg
Vitamin B6 - 0.155 μg
Folate - 68 μg
Choline - 11.4 mg
Vitamin C - 18.0 mg
Vitamin E - 0.80 mg
Vitamin K - 414.8 μg
Calcium - 177 mg
Iron - 3.17 mg
Magnesium - 64 mg
Manganese - 1.148 mg
Phosphorus - 56 mg
Potassium - 295 mg
Sodium - 4 mg
Zinc - 0.81 mg
Quick and easy cooking with basil
Pounded in a pestle and mortar or food processer with garlic, pine nuts, parmesan and olive oil to make pesto; added to tomato-based pasta sauces; combined with sliced mozzarella and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil for a classic Caprese salad; chopped and beaten into softened butter, then melted over steaks, roast chicken, or crushed boiled new potatoes.
And now, time for some recipes…
Strawberry and basil shortcakes
An American twist on our plain or sometimes fruity scones, but absotluely delish!
For the Shortcakes
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for surface
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup heavy cream
1 large egg, beaten to blend
Berries And Assembly
1½ pound fresh strawberries, hulled, quartered (about 3 cups), divided
4 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 sprigs basil
2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons crème fraiche
1. Preheat oven to 400°. Whisk sugar, baking powder, salt, and 2 cups flour in a large bowl. Using your fingers or a pastry cutter, work in butter until the texture of coarse meal with a few pea-size pieces of butter remaining.
2. Add cream and mix until dough just comes together (it will be sticky). Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat into a 12x4” rectangle about ¾” thick. Cut out rounds with a 2½” biscuit cutter, re-rolling scraps as needed to make 8 rounds.
3. Whisk egg with 1 Tbsp. water in a small bowl. Transfer rounds to a parchment-lined baking sheet and brush tops with egg wash. Bake until tops are golden brown and shortcakes are cooked through, 15–20 minutes. (Do Ahead: Shortcakes can be made 2 days ahead. Store tightly wrapped at room temperature)
4. Coarsely chop 2 cups strawberries (use any bruised or less perfect ones) and cook with 2 Tbsp. sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until berries are softened and mixture is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Let berry compote cool.
Meanwhile, toss basil, 1 Tbsp. sugar, and remaining 1 cup strawberries in a medium bowl and let sit until fruit begins to release juices, 10–15 minutes. Discard basil.
5. Using an electric mixer, beat cream, crème fraîche, and remaining 1 Tbsp. sugar to soft peaks, about 4 minutes.
6. Split shortcakes and fill with berry compote, whipped cream mixture, and macerated strawberries.
Melanzane Alla Parmigiana
For the Red Sauce:
1/4 cup olive oil
5 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 red onion, finely chopped
Two 400g cans pomodori pelati tomatoes (whole peeled tomatoes), blended smooth
Pinch red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Large handful fresh basil leaves
For the Aubergine Parmigiana:
Canola oil, for frying aubergines
2 cups plain flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 medium aubergines, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 1/2 pounds light mozzarella, grated
1 pound Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated , plus more for garnish
1 bunch fresh basil, leaves only (about 3 loosely packed cups ), plus more for garnish
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
1. For the red sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the garlic and onions and saute until tender, 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes and some salt and black pepper and simmer for 20 minutes. Tear the basil leaves and stir into the sauce at the end of simmering.
2. For the aubergine parmigiana: Preheat the oven to 200°C. Pour 2 inches of olive oil into a heavy-bottomed pot or high-sided frying pan and heat to 180°C.
3. Pour the flour into a wide casserole dish. Whisk in salt and black pepper. Dredge the aubergine slices in the flour, and then fry them in the hot oil in batches. When they are browned, remove them from the oil and lay them on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet. Repeat as necessary. Let cool.
4. Start layering your ingredients in individual gratin dishes or in 2 disposable trays if making family-style servings: a few slices of fried aubergine, a small spoonful of red sauce, a couple of handfuls of mozzarella, a couple of tablespoons of Parmesan, a few leaves of basil. Repeat the layering 2 to 3 times (3 is better if your dish can accommodate it). For the top layer, finish with a final spoonful of red sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake until bubbly and golden on top, 25 to 30 minutes. Reserve any remaining red sauce for another use.
5. Serve garnished with a few leaves of basil, a sprinkle of Parmesan, and a touch of extra-virgin olive oil.