Most closely associated with Mediterranean cooking but also very prevalent in Asian food, the herb basil has a sweet, strong aroma and flavour. There are three main Mediterranean types: sweet, with large green leaves; Greek, with smaller leaves and a peppery undertone; and purple, whose dark leaves have a milder flavour.
Asian varieties include lemon basil, which has a citrus note and smaller leaves; Thai, like sweet basil, but stronger; and holy basil, spicy and intense, and unusual in that it’s best when cooked, rather than raw.
All year round, but grows best during July and August. Save on packaging by buying a pot from your garden centre or supermarket – it will live quite happily on a sunny windowsill.
Choose the best
It’s available freeze-dried, in sunflower oil or dried, but the best to use is fresh; either cut or potted.
Pick fresh basil leaves from their stalks and scatter whole, or roughly torn, over dishes.
Fresh cut basil should be wrapped in damp kitchen paper, placed in a perforated bag and stored in the fridge – it will last a day or two. Potted basil should be kept in a sunny but sheltered place (a windowsill is ideal) and watered regularly (but not too much, as that will dilute the flavour). As you pick leaves from it, more will grow, and the plant should last several months.
Pounded in a pestle and mortar or food processor with garlic, pine nuts, parmesan and olive oil to make pesto; added to tomato-based pasta sauces; combined with sliced mozzarella and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil for a classic Caprese salad; chopped and beaten into softened butter, then melted over steaks, roast chicken, or crushed boiled new potatoes.
Try rocket or parsley.