THE herb with the split personality, has a checkered past. It was symbolic of evil in some parts of the world, of love and scared worship in others.
Greek and Roman physicians said it would grow only if it had been sown while horrible curses were shouted. Later some European herbalists claimed that by crushing basil between two stones, and reciting a spell, scorpions could be created.
On the other hand, in Italy, at least in the days when they had balconies over which young ladies leaned, basil was a sign of love. A pot of basil on the balcony indicated the lady in question was willing to receive a suitor. It is also given to one's lover as a token of fidelity, and according to at least one herb book, many an Italian man can be seen with a sprig of basil tucked behind the ear on his way to meet his loved one. According to Rumanian lore, when a man accepts a sprig of basil from a woman it means they are engaged.
Then, of course, there is Baccaccio's Decameron with the story of Isabella whose daily tears watered the pot of basil in which she had buried the head of her lover.
In Eastern tradition there is no ambivalence. In its native India basil is grown in pots in temples and placed on the breasts of the dead to protect them from evils in the other world. Some religious sects in India also believe that if a house is built where basil has thrived, the home will be safe.
Considering how well basil goes with tomatoes and garlic and cheese and pasta, it is not surprising that it is so highly regarded in Italy. For many modern cooks, however, their introduction to fresh basil has come through pesto the wickedly rich pasta sauce made with lots of olive oil, lots of garlic, lots of pine nuts (or walnuts) and lots and lots of fresh basil leaves. Before pesto, most cooks have met basil as another in that trio of dried seasoning -- basil, oregano and bay leaf -- without which no tomato sauce is complete.
While no dried herb is as flavorful as when it is fresh, there is an even greater distinction between fresh and dried basil. According to Millie Owen in a Cook's Guide to Herbs, Greens, & Aromatics," . . . basil, because of its potent oils . . . becomes especially emasculated when it is dried."
Owen goes on to offer alternative methods for preserving fresh basil which turns black the minute the first frost hits. She minces the leaves until they are almost a pulp (the food processor will also do the job) and then mixes them with freshly grated parmesan cheese. "Keep mixing in cheese until everything is crumbly dry. Pack the mixture in glass jars, starting with a thin layer of pepper and salt on the bottom, adding a half-inch layer of basil-cheese, more salt and pepper, and so on until the jar is nearly full. Pour in a 1/4 inch layer of olive oil on top, seal and refrigerate."
Ownes also preserves basil by mixing it with olive oil or butter in a blender until it is finely blended.
Others recommend placing basil leaves in layers of coarse salt.
And if you are really desperate as the first frost is announced for that night on the evening news, you can simply cut down the basil, remove the leaves, wash and dry them and put them in the freezer in plastic bags. Yes, they will turn black, but when you add them to most cooked sauces, you'll never notice the color. Only the ineffable flavor will remain.
Although I have had very good luck growing basil in what's left of my herb garden, I have never been successful bringing it indoors. All the little white bugs come with it. This year I'm going to try Owen's system of rooting.
Strip the lower leaves off some of the sprigs and put them in water to root . . . Plant them in potting soil to which you've added some limestone or eggshells and put them in the sunniest place possible or under plant lights.
Give indoor basil some liquid fertilizer occasionally.And enjoy this wonderful pungent herb all year long in soups, salad dressing, egg dishes, bland vegetables, as a sandwich spread made by mixing chopped basil with softened butter. Or in some of the recipes below. GAEL GREENE'S LINGUINE (4 servings) 3 large cloves garlic, minced 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts 1 cup tightly packed cut up fresh basil 1/2 pint light or heavy cream* 1/2 pound soft goat or sheep cheese 1 pound linquine or spaghettini :1 pound linguine or spaghettini
Saute the garlic in the butter and oil until soft. Add the walnuts and saute until crisp. Set aside. Mix together the cream, goat cheese and 1/4 cup parmesan. Cook pasta. While pasta is cooking, add the basil to the walnut mixture. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of cooking liquid.Return pasta to pot with the reserved liquid. Stir in the cheese mixture. Then stir in walnut mixture. Serve with remaining parmesan. BASIL CHICKEN AND POTATOE SALAD (4 servings) 1 cup fresh basil leaves 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 egg 6 tablespoons yogurt 6 tablespoons mayonnaise 2 cups cubed, cooked chicken meat 2 cups cubed, cooked potatoes Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Combine basil, oil, lemon juice and egg in food processor or blender and puree. Combine pureed mixture with yogurt and mayonnaise. Carefully stir in chicken and potatoes and season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill, overnight if desired. C.C.'s FRESH TOMATO SAUCE WITH ROTINI (Enough for 1 1/2 to 2 pounds pasta, 6 to 8 servings) 2 pounds ripe tomatoes 4 cloves garlic 2/3 cup fresh basil leaves tightly packed 1/4 cup coarsely chopped parsley 1/3 cup good quality olive oil Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 2 tablespoons fresh or 2 teaspoons dried oregano 1 cup finely grated fresh parmesan cheese 1 1/2 to 2 pounds rotini
Cut up tomatoes in large chunks. Add half of all remaining ingredients but cheese to blender and blend until smooth. Add remaining ingredients, except cheese, and blend until smooth.
Sauce may be served immediately but is even better if it has time to ripen for several hours or overnight.
To serve, cook rotini (spiral macaroni which holds the sauce well is recommended). Drain and serve while piping hot with cold sauce. Sprinkle with parmesan. SEAFOOD GRILLED ON BASIL BED (4 to 6 servings) 4 big handfuls basil branches 2 pounds scallops and shrimp or 2 pounds sole fillets melted butter
Prepare charcoal fire. Rinse basil to wet thoroughly. Arrange on the grill in a reasonably meat pile about 2 inches thick, without pressing down the leaves. Place seafood on top, brush with butter; cover with a large lid or aluminum foil and grill about 6 inches from coals. Fish should be cooked in 12 to 15 minutes. -- adapted from "a Cooke's guide to Growing Herbs, Greens & Aromatics" by Millie Owen BASIL BEEF
An adaptation of an hors d'oeuvre served at Germaine's restaurant. (About 25 to 30 pieces) 3/4 pound extra lean ground beef 1/4 cup minces onion 1/2 green onion, green and white part, minced 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil leaves Freshly ground black pepper to taste 2 tablespoons soy sauce pinch sugar 25 to 30 very large basil leaves
Combine beef, onion, green onion, chpped basil, pepper, soy and sugar. Mix well but lightly and form the mixture into ovals. Wrap a basil leaf around each oval.
These may be placed on skewers and grilled over charcoal. They may be broiled in the oven, 3 minutes on one side and 3 minutes on the other. Then they should be turned once again to absorb some of the juices and make the basil leaves moist.
Or they may be pan-fried in a skillet which has been lightly coated with oil to keep the basil leaves from sticking.