What’s better than basil?

by | Jun 7, 2010

Welcome, class, to today’s Fresh Pick: BASIL

Basil [BAY-zihl, BA-zihl] is available year-round and is a wonderful herb to use in pasta (especially pesto and marinara sauces), poultry, and seafood dishes. Basil has a pungent flavor and clove-like aroma. When choosing, leaves should be fresh-looking, crisp, and brightly-colored. Depending on the variety—there are twelve!—leaves may vary in color from green to reddish-purple. (Sweet Basil is probably the most popular and is the perfect compliment to ripe red tomatoes and soft cheeses such as fresh mozzarella and brie.) If you are not going to use basil the same day you buy it, do not store it in the refrigerator. Temperatures below 48 F will turn basil black. Instead, put the stems into a glass of water as you would a plant cutting. Avoid herbs that are wilted, have dry brown areas, or are pale or yellow in color. Slimy looking dark spots with small areas of mold indicate old product or poor handling.

Basil is most commonly associated with Italian and Thai Cuisine, but the name basil comes from the Greek, meaning “kingly” and the herb itself originates in India, where it is has long been considered sacred. It was brought to the Mediterranean via the spice routes in ancient times and spread to other parts of Asia where it became popular in the use of curries in Thailand. In ancient Rome, the name for the herb, Basilescus, referred to Basilisk, the fire-breathing dragon. Taking the herb was thought to be the charm against the beast…and it continues to be a charm associated with love rituals. In Eastern Europe, it was assumed that a man would love the woman from whose hand he accepted a sprig of basil and when a woman placed a pot of basil on her balcony, it meant that she would be receptive to her lover. Basil has traditionally been given as a good-luck present to new home and business owners (a modern custom claims that basil will attract customers to a place of business if a sprig of the herb is placed in the cash register).

Basil is primarily a culinary herb. It has antibacterial and antiviral properties, but it is not an important herb for modern clinical herbalists. However, as a member of the mint family, basil is recommended as a digestive aid and an after dinner cup of basil tea makes a healthier alternative to the after-dinner mint.

For some great recipes, click here or here or try this simple dish:

1 16-oz package pasta (long or short—your choice)
2 roma (also known as plum) tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/2 c olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips (known as “chiffonade”)
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente; drain. In a large bowl, gently toss the cooked pasta, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and basil. Season with salt and pepper and serve!


I’m Dina R. D’Alessandro, MS, RDN, CDN. I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in New York City, and I provide nutrition counseling to women.

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