Monday, July 6, 2009

Ingredients: Basil

I remember the rise of basil.

In the early Eighties, Americans became aware of food, particularly that of Europe, especially that of Italy. This was the era in which the green table shaker of Parmesan “cheese” met its well-deserved demise. It was replaced by a wedge of well, something called “Parmesan” cheese (but also made by Kraft). That was then usurped by real Italian Parmesan-Regiano, and Pecorino made with unpasturized milk -- something that once would have been unthinkable to a people raised on the slick, orange, plasticine substance known as “American cheese”.

This happened first, as most things do here, in California, and has spread across the land like spilled olive oil. At some point Americans also became aware that basil is a plant, to be used lavishly, not something dried and sprinkled from a jar. By the late Eighties, anyone who cooked seriously attempted to grow a basil plant or two. In my city-apartment patio garden, I had several; lemon, purple, Opal, Thai and finally Genovese.

Basil is a variety of mint, the Labiatae family, with square stems and tiny, hairlike oil glands. The aroma molecules produced by these include 1,8 cineol, methylchavicol, methyl cinnamete, linalool, citral, and eugenol. Sound familiar? The last three are common perfume ingredients. I didn’t know how common “basil” was as a perfume ingredient until I looked it up; "Basenotes" lists 254 fragrances that feature it!

Some are Brut, Denueve, Eau de Guerlain, Eau Sauvage, Frankincense & Myrrh, Habit Rouge, Givenchy’s Insense, the original Polo, CDG 3, Rosine’s Zephir de Rose, Boucheron by Boucheron and...surprise, surprise, as I wear this often in the summer but had no idea: O de Lancome.

Looking at the pyramids, most of the time basil is in the “top,” alongside those citruses. It is interesting that basil itself contains citral, some varieties more than others. The “lemon” variety is full of citral. Some, like my favorite Genovese variety, contain a stronger clove note, presumably from the eugenol. In perfumery, my guess is that there is a good melding of basil with citruses, as the citral molecules are present in both, but that basil essence adds a missing herbaceous quality to the volatile top notes. My beloved O de Lancome, for example, hits you with full-force lemon at first and then there is something else, not immediately identifiable as “herb” as thyme or lavender would be. My guess now: basil.

Like so many herbs and spices, this one is so ancient that the Sanskrit name -- tulasi -- has no obvious entymology. In Latin, basiliscus referred to a fire-breathing dragon. The Greek word basilikon means, roughly, “royal”; in old Arabic, basil was known as “al-habaqa.” There is a word for this plant in nearly every language.

The oils from basil produce a cooling effect in the mouth, but those substances are ephemeral at best. They don’t take to cooking well, as heat destroys them. So does oxygen, and cold, as anyone who has ever put fresh basil into the refrigerator only to retrieve black, slimy leaves the next day will attest. There is really only one way to use basil, and that is raw and fresh, from the garden or a real farmer’s market. It grows best in the ground; some varieties will grow to several feet. Native to Africa and Asia, it loves heat, humidity, sun and water. Give it all that and you will be rewarded. Or put bought basil in a glass of water, like flowers; it’ll keep for a day or two.

If you stack ten or so basil leaves atop one another, roll them up into a tube and cut that into narrow strips, you’ll have a “chiffonade” of basil, which you then strew across...well, whatever you want; pasta, tomatoes, a salad. Or here is a classic recipe for pesto, from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking”:

2 garlic cloves
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
3 tablespoons pine nuts
sea salt
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated romano cheese
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature

Briefly soak the basil leaves in cool water and dry thoroughly (pat with paper towels).

Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, chopped garlic and a pinch of salt into a food processor and process until smooth and creamy. (This mixture can be frozen.) (Ms. Hazan much preferred doing this in a large motor with pestle, btw.)

Transfer to a bowl, and mix the cheeses, and then the butter, in by hand. (If using the previously frozen mixture, thaw and then add the cheeses and butter.)

For pesto pasta, mix in a couple of teaspoons of the warm water the pasta was cooked in.

What says “summer” better than this, white cotton sheets, and citrusy colognes?

Much of the information on basil’s background came from Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages

Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” copyright 1992: ISBN 0-394-58404-X.

The basil photograph came from the Burpee catalog, which lists at least a dozen varieties of basil.


ScentScelf said...

I really need to master starting basil from seed, as I could use, oh, a couple dozen plants at least growing in the garden. Ah, the glorious year when I had a variety of them growing in the garden at the old house, many of them the same as in you patio garden list...standard, cinnamon, purple, lemon, Opal...yum. My neighbor grew a slew, and whipped up a few batches of pesto every summer, which he generously shared across the fence.

I just mentioned to somebody else an Yves Rocher tomato-basil liquid *does* smell like the name...but, in the realm of perfume, I wouldn't have thought of it much. I have Deneuve on my inner arm *right now,* and have been delighting in it all afternoon, but would never have written "aha! basil" in my notes. Hunh. Very interesting...

I rather enjoy the O de Lancome, too; am going to think of "basilico," as the person who introduced me to it called it, when I spritz it next...

Olfacta said...

Hi S! Starting basil from seed is a bit labor intensive, as the seeds have to be on the surface (not buried) and kept moist so they can form a gel coating. I just buy the seedlings now. And...tomato-basil soap? Hmmm.

I think the "basil" note in perfume is usually buried pretty far back. I've actually wondered if it isn't just a name for the aroma molecules that would normally comprise basil being present.

Rappleyea said...

Great post! I am a huge fan of Marcella Hazan. There is a 2nd classic cookbook that followed this one. Her Minestrone soup is the best I've ever tasted (or made!).