For years, I grew basil primarily for use in pesto.
It wasn’t until recently I learned of its nutritional benefits. Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K and a very good source of iron, calcium and vitamin A. In addition, basil is a good source of dietary fiber, manganese, magnesium, vitamin C and potassium. Research studies on basil have shown unique health-protecting effects in two basic areas: basil’s flavonoids and volatile oils.
The “anti-bacterial” properties of basil are not associated with its unique flavonoids, but instead with its volatile oils, which contain estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene. Lab studies show the effectiveness of basil in restricting growth of numerous bacteria, including: Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O:157:H7, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Studies also have shown that washing produce in solution containing basil essential oil at the very low concentration of just 1 percent resulted in dropping the number of Shigella, an infectious bacteria that triggers diarrhea and may cause significant intestinal damage, below the point at which it could be detected.
While scientists use this research to try to develop natural food preservatives, it makes good sense to include basil and thyme in more of your recipes, particularly for foods that are not cooked, such as salads. Adding fresh basil to your next vinaigrette will not only enhance the flavor of your fresh greens, but will help ensure that the fresh produce you consume is safer to eat.
Studies are still being done on the primary medicinal uses of basil and its BCP, or (E)-beta-caryophyllene, a natural anti-inflammatory compound also found in oregano and medicinal cannabis. BCP found in basil may offer an alternative to medical marijuana, because it offers the same anti-inflammatory effects without the mental and neurological side-effects of illicit drugs. BCP in basil is believed to combat bowel inflammation and rheumatoid arthritis.
Fresh basil should be stored in the refrigerator wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel. It may also be frozen, either whole or chopped, in airtight containers. Alternatively, you can freeze the basil in ice cube trays covered with either water or stock that can be added when preparing soups or stews. You should make sure that all the basil is coated with oil too, which keeps it from going dark in the freezer.
When you are chopping it, drizzle some oil over it before you put it in the freezer. I chop mine in the food processor and use about 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil per batch; place in ice use trays and fill with water. The oil will rise to the top. After they are frozen, I pop them out and place in freezer bags. Then as I want to make pesto, flavor soups/stews, I just add them frozen towards the end of cooking. Since the oils in basil are highly volatile, it is best to add the herb near the end of the cooking process, so it will retain its maximum essence and flavor.
Dried basil should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place where it will keep fresh for about six months.
Here are some recipes to use with your basil.
Basil Sunflower Seed Pesto
Makes 5 cups
4 cups coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves
1 cup raw sunflower seed kernels
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic-crushed
Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Process to a puree, scraping down sides often. Transfer pesto to a small bowl with a lid. Press a sheet of plastic wrap to the surface of the pesto sauce, then seal with the lid. May be refrigerated up to 2 weeks.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 57 calories (82 percent from fat), 5 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 2 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 37 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Tomato and Basil Gouda Fondue
Makes 4 servings
1 (8-ounce) round gouda cheese, save shell of round to use as a serving bowl
2 small tomatoes, cored and diced
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil
1 loaf baguette bread, sliced and toasted
Remove coating from Gouda cheese and carefully scoop out center, leaving a 1/4 –inch thick shell: set shell aside. Coarsely chop scooped-out cheese into small pieces and place in a microwave-safe bowl; mix in tomatoes and basil. Cook, uncovered, in microwave oven on high for 1 minute, stir and cook another 2 minutes, stirring every 20 seconds or until cheese is bubbling. Remove from microwave oven; pour cheese mixture into shell, pushing into corners to fill shell. Serve with toasted baguette slices.
Per serving: 489 calories (35 percent from fat), 19 grams total fat (11 grams saturated), 65 milligrams cholesterol, 56 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams protein, 1,079 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber. Donna Cook is owner of Rabbit Creek Gourmet Foods based in Louisburg, Kan. She is a Master Gardener, Master Food Volunteer and on the board of the Home Baking Association.