Going Herbal: Basil for summer

In a couple of days I’m posting the results of my research into sunscreens and it’s a bit of an epic [for ‘epic’ read: long, hopefully interesting, features heros, villains and a battle]. So today’s buzzword is brevity. I WILL be brief.

I’m into my herbs. Flowers are glorious and good for the soul but I just love plants that work as hard as herbs do. They offer rich and varied vegetation, tantalising aromas, mouthwatering flavours, plus health-promoting and medicinal properties. Some even help out in the garden – rosemary repels cabbage moths and carrot flies, while basil (today’s star) drives away flies and mosquitos.

Basil is such a wonderful herb for summer. I love the fresh, warm, spicy, grassy scent of it and combined with tomatoes it’s one of those smells that I have to stop and savour every time I encounter it. So I thought I’d start my ‘Going Herbal’ posts (I’m aiming for one every 1-2 months) by looking at some different ways to enjoy basil, above and beyond the usual ‘basil + tomatoes = winner’ equation.

Basil is rich in volatile oils, making it particularly good at relieving digestive problems like bloating or nausea, while its antibacterial properties make it an effective treatment for intestinal parasites. It’s also – so I’ve read – an effective treatment for relieving itchy skin when combined in a paste with honey. Not sure how pleasant this would be, or how inclined I am to actually try it…but if it works, it works.

It grows quickly and easily on a light windowsill or in the garden, prefering a slightly drier soil. Like all herbs, you should regularly nip out the tips to encourage a fuller, bushier shape. With basil, you should also remove the flowering tips as the white flowers that will come through aren’t worth having if you’re using the plant for culinary purposes.

If you want to bring the smell indoors, I love Jo Malone’s Lime, Basil & Mandarin Home Candle. Its “fresh limes and zesty mandarins are undercut by peppery basil” (thanks Jo Malone website; I couldn’t have said it better myself!). The smell is summery, uplifting and expansive in that way that cleans out brain cobwebs. It’s £38, which is expensive no matter how much you peek through your fingers at it but it’s a good option for the ‘when I have a birthday’ list.

If you want to slather it on yourself, Korres do a Basil Lemon body range. I haven’t tried it personally but I do rate the Korres products I’ve used in the past and their green credentials. If you have tried it, do please use the comments to let me (and others) know what you thought. The range is available from lookfantastic, priced from £7.50 for shower gel.

For a more unusual approach, you could try Basil lemonade. This recipe uses a basil-infused lemon syrup, which you can get instructions on how to make here.  I’m definitely going to give this a go on the next sunny day we get (so, 2012 then…).

You could also try basil + alcohol and use it in cocktails as an interesting alternative to mint. This gets my vote, partly because of the alcohol and partly because it involves ‘muddling’, which is the most hilarious instruction ever. It literally means ‘to gently crush into liquid’, but it’s so much more fun to imagine some comedy kitchen slapstick routine featuring a flour-dusted chef. This site features an extensive list of different cocktail options featuring basil.  

Finally, (who said something about keeping it brief?) a suggestion for eating basil. There’s one recipe I come back to time and again – salsa verde. I’m sure there are plenty of variations on the recipe (and most likely a definitive version that purists would never deviate from) but I like to keep things simple and customisable for taste. Use a generous handful of roughly-chopped basil, a generous handful of roughly-chopped parsley, 1tsp of Dijon mustard, 1 tsp of capers, the oil from a tin of tuna and the juice & zest of 1 lemon. Whack it all in a blender and pulse a few times until it forms a coarse paste (you want to keep some texture). It will smell amazing – like fresh air in an Italian park on a warm, sunny day. You can add anchovies but I don’t because they make The Man With The Camera screw up his face. Then just mix it through pasta with the tuna, and you’ve got a ridiculously easy dish. You can also substitute the tuna oil for olive oil and use it as a dressing for grilled salmon or tuna as well.

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