The herb that’s most popularly associated with Italian cuisine is basil (Basilico). There are several varieties, but you’re most likely to find sweet basil in the shops – it has large, aromatic leaves. Cooking with basil, especially if you grew it yourself, is wonderfully satisfying .
Basil is a small, bushy plant that grows to about two feet tall. It is a member of the mint family and is very similar in appearance. With its rich spicy scent it is said to refresh the mind, relieve headaches and elevate moods. It is an excellent source of iron, calcium, potassium and Vitamin C, all of which are hugely beneficial to one’s health. But perhaps most of all it is a wonderful and versatile culinary herb.
Fresh basil is best known for pesto and goes extremely well with pasta, rice, tomato, zucchini, and eggplant. The Italians discovered that basil tends to compliment the taste of tomatoes, and since tomatoes played such an important role in Italian cuisine, basil came to be widely used in Italian cooking as well.
It may be good for you, and the oil from the leaf is distilled and used for stomach aches in herbal medicine, but one thing is for certain, it makes your food taste better.
You can store fresh leaves in plastic bags inside the refrigerator, and also freeze crushed or pureed leaves in ice cubes that you can drop into your soups and dishes as flavouring. You can also preserve basil leaves by keeping them in a jar with olive oil.
Basil became an integral seasoning in Italian cuisine, and in fact Italians had such appreciation for this herb, that it became a symbol of love. Cooking with basil induces feelings of love, passion, mental clarity and harmony into your life. It is known as the herb of kings, and is a favourite with cooks around the world, lending its delicious flavour to many ethnic cuisines.
Pick the leaves as fresh as possible, and tear them rather than cut them. (Basil leaves blacken when exposed to metal, therefore it is common in Italy to tear the leaves by hand before throwing the basil into a sauce or onto a dish.)
These torn leaves are great just added to salads, such as insalata caprese. You can also cook them, in a simple tomato sauce for instance, but make sure you add them just before serving. If they’re cooked too much they lose their flavour.
Insalata Caprese Recipe
This is a simple salad from the Italian region of Campania, made of sliced fresh mozzarella, tomatoes (preferably plum) and sprinkled with basil. It is traditionally seasoned with salt, freshly milled black pepper, and olive oil.
Four medium tomatoes
8oz of buffalo mozzarella
Bunch of basil with the leaves torn
*Slice the tomatoes and mozzarella thickly.
*Arrange alternately on a plate and sprinkle with torn basil leaves
*Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper to your taste.
— Kath Ibbetson