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Herbs & Spice Series: Lesson One; Basil, oh glorious basil!

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If you are a new cook or new to using Herbs and Spices in your food, you may be a bit overwhelmed or even think you don't like them. If that's the case, think of this:

Do you like Pizza or other Italian foods? Pizza Sauce is made with oregano, basil, thyme, garlic and/or rosemary, to name a few. Try this recipe.

Do you love Tacos, Fajitas, Burritos? Mexican sauces and meats are made with chili powder, cumin, cilantro, paprika and/or cayenne pepper. Try this recipe.

How about the stuffing that's served with the big ole turkey at your Thanksgiving table? Stuffing uses lots of sage, garlic and onions. Try this recipe.

Get where I'm going here? You most likely DO like some herbs and spices, but just haven't trained your eyes, nose or taste-buds to recognize them yet. It's hard to cook with something if you don't know what it goes with or how to use it. To that end, we start our second article in our new Herbs & Spices Series. The introduction of the series is here, and gives you the herbs recommended you start with, if you missed it. Lesson two is HERE.

Today's lesson is Basil, oh glorious Basil, my favorite herb to smell, grow, eat and cook with. By the end of this article, you should be comfortable with what basil will go with in your culinary ventures. Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Basil, Oh Glorious Basil!!

Basil is widely used in Italian, Greek, Thai and many other areas of cooking. Coming from the mint family (but with a very mild minty taste), the herb has a sweet but mild minty-licorice flavor, and a very floral aroma.

Basil is an easy-to-grow herb and develops lovely - and tasty - blooms when it reaches maturity each season. The leaves and flowers are edible, and each have a distinctly unique and different flavor from one another. The leaves are good in many different dishes, while the flowers are better served raw in salads.

There are several types of basil, including Sweet Basil, the most basic and recognizable flavor, used in many Italian dishes, including pastas and pizzas.

Lemon Basil is most definitely lemon-y and makes an herbal lemon tea taste richer, deeper. Lemon basil is good when used along with garlic in chicken dishes or on fish, it's even really good in a fruit salad.

Cinnamon Basil tastes like a combination of the sweet basil and cinnamon. The cinnamon is strong, so should be used a bit at a time, until the perfect flavor is reached and is fantastic in fruit dishes and tea. It also is a great aromatic addition to a bouquet for your dining room table.

Thai Basil is also an easy-to-grow herb and is becoming increasingly popular in American cooking, in part because we have learned the flavor from Thai restaurants that are so popular here in the country. Because of the lovely flavor and aroma of this herb, it's a quite popular addition to herb gardens, both indoor and out. In cooking, Thai Basil is perfect in any Asian dish and also in salads and some sweets, like chocolate and ice cream. The pretty purple blooms of this plant are also edible.

I suggest you begin with sweet basil, the most commonly sold basil in grocery stores or herb shops.Buy a fresh plant, Publix carries them at a very low price, and also pick up a jar of McCormick's (the best of all the store and online herbs I've tried) dried basil. I keep a plant growing in my kitchen window sill and clip from it often. I love a leaf added to lemon water or lemonade. How simple is that? I also keep dried basil around and use it often in sauces, soups and dips, as well as chicken and potato dishes. And don't forget to use basil in your pasta water and sauces.

Recipe for Garlic Lemon Chicken Marinade:

For your homework, I suggest you begin with chicken breasts, or a whole chicken, whatever.

Take a small bowl, pour in 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon McCormick's dried basil leaves, juice of half a lemon and 1 crushed clove of garlic. Add salt and pepper - stir. Now, massage your chicken all over (inside the cavity if a whole chicken), then let it sit to marinate for about 30 minutes. Bake, roast or saute like usual. There is your first basil dish. Post at the bottom of this article how your homework turned out.

Basil Tips:

  • You will typically use two or three times as much fresh herbs as dried.
  • Fresh, cut basil is best kept in a jar of water on your windowsill or in the fridge.
  • While fresh basil should be added at the end of your cooking time, dried basil should be added near the first, so it has time to develop.
  • Foods made with fresh herbs will have more distinct flavors after left overnight in the refrigerator. So, less is more when you first make your dish, if it's going to be refrigerated overnight.
  • Always start with half of the amount the recipe calls for, if you are new to the flavor, tasting and adding a bit more at a time until it's just right for you. Don't forget to write down the adjustments you make in your cookbook... one book it's perfectly okay to write in.

Common Uses and Recipes for Basil (from the Food Network Blog:

Pesto

Infused Oil

Appetizers

Tomato Mozzarella and Basil Bruschetta
Black Pepper Basil Farmers Cheese Bruschetta
Tomato, Watermelon and Basil Skewers

Soups

Tomato Basil Soup

Summer Squash Soup with Basil

Salads

Pizza

Mushroom, Onion and Basil Pizza
Pizza with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil

Fish and Seafood

Halibut with Pepitas, Capers, Cherry Tomatoes and Basil
Thai Shrimp Stir-Fry with Tomatoes and Basil- Slimmed
Garlic Basil Shrimp
Whole-Wheat Spaghetti with Lemon, Basil and Salmon

Side Dishes

Sauteed Asparagus with Olives and Basil
Roasted Peppers with Basil

Even Desserts

Don't forget to try it in a cocktail

Fresh Strawberry Balsamic Basil Daiquiri

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