Once a sign of hospitality in India and a symbol of love in Italy, basil has been cultivated—and valued—for over 5,000 years. The word "basil" comes from the Greek for "king"—perhaps because it was revered in ancient cultures.
The plant is easy to grow but very sensitive to cold, preferring hot, dry conditions. It's native to Iran, India and the tropical areas of Asia. While basil is typically an annual, some varieties (such as holy basil) are perennials in hot climates. Like other plants in the mint family, you can identify basil by its square, hairy stems and pointed leaves.
Cultivation of basil spreads through France, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, Morocco, Greece, Israel and the United States. In the U.S., it's grown commercially in Arizona, California, New Mexico and North Carolina.
Basil is a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamins A, C, K and B6, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.
There are over 60 varieties of basil. Sweet basils include Genovese, Large-Leaf and Mammoth. Beautiful purple foliage varieties include Purple Ruffles and Dark Opal, and lemon basils include Lemon-Scented and Sweet Dani. There are also cinnamon, camphor, anise, licorice and Thai basils, with spicy tastes and aromas to match their names. Holy basil, also called sacred basil, tulasi or tulsi, is also used for medicinal teas.
A delicate herb with a fresh, bright taste, basil transforms a slice of bread into bruschetta, plain tomato soup into a delicacy, and ordinary pizza into an epicurean delight. Use it fresh or dried to season most any vegetable or casserole, soup or stew. Combined with toasted hazelnuts and chevre cheese, basil enhances otherwise plain fish in Wild Salmon Fillets with Basil and Hazelnut Crust.
Pesto is built upon basil's appeal, nicely highlighted in these Stuffed Tomatoes with Pesto and Orzo and this Pesto Tortellini. You may be most familiar with basil in Italian foods, but many basil varieties are also popular in Southeast Asian cuisines. Rice Noodles with Holy Basil Pesto calls on the spicy flavor of holy basil to deliver a Thai-inspired dish.
Basil can be harvested throughout summer, and it's also often grown both indoors and out, which means you may be able to find it year round in your co-op's produce aisle.
Choose fresh basil with deep green, spot-free, vibrant leaves with no yellowing.
Keep the fresh herb in a damp paper towel in the refrigerator. You can also freeze the leaves whole or chopped, placed in freezer containers