But it’s the aromatic leaves themselves that contain dozens of volatile essential oils. Their relative concentration is the difference between “regular” Genovese basil, Thai basil, Lemon basil, Holy Basil, Cinnamon Basil, African Basil and all the other basils you’ll find your local farmer growing.
There are a few rules to remember when buying and using basil.
Rule #1: Use only the freshest basil. The fresher it is, the better it is. The fragrance of basil is never as seductive as when it is first plucked from a live plant and eaten raw, as quickly as possible after plucking. Think about having a pot of basil of your own – on the kitchen window sill or in your back yard. Basil from a local farmer at a Farmers’ Market or through a CSA, packaged in giant bunches, is just as good.
Rule #2: Minimize cooking your basil – don’t even heat it up if you can help it. When adding basil to a pasta sauce or a pizza, do so only at the last minute, while tossing with the pasta or after the pizza has emerged from the oven. Basil pesto too, should always be used raw.
Rule #3: Stay away from knives if you need to prep the basil ahead of time. The cut edges of basil will blacken and the overall flavor will be diminished. Instead, simply use whole leaves or tear large leaves into small pieces with your hands before scattering them over a tomato salad, mashing them into a basil butter for corn on the cob, sprinkling on green bean salads, or roasted eggplant, zucchini, or peppers. For more summer fun, experiment with the many scented and colored basils that farmers are now bringing to market, including lemon, anise, Thai, cinnamon, and purple basils.
Rule #4: Use basil only in the summer. This relates back to Rule #1, bringing us full circle. Basil is the ultimate summer herb. Its rich perfume evokes warm sunny days and mouthwatering combinations with other summer vegetables – tomatoes, zucchini, peppers. Sure, you can get it year-round in the grocery store, but like tomatoes, basil tends to be insipid when grown in a greenhouse or flown in from California. Some things in life are definitely worth the wait. Basil is one of them.
Basil Caprese Salad
Several sprigs of basil (use a variety of types!)
4-6 tomatoes (use a variety of colors)
1 pound of fresh mozzarella, sliced
1 Tbsp balsamic glaze
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
- Slice the tomatoes and mozzarella into 1/4 in. slices
- Tear leaves off of the basil sprigs
- Alternate tomato, mozzarella, and basil leaves
- Top with olive oil, more basil leaves (and flowers if you have them), balsamic glaze, and sprinkle with salt
Seasonal Cook’s Notes:
Makes about 4 individual salads
Farm Fresh Now! is a project of The Land Connection, an educational nonprofit that preserves farmland, trains new farmers, and connects people with great locally-grown foods. This series is made possible with generous support from the Illinois Department of Agriculture.