While basil comes in a number of varieties, large-leafed sweet basil is most commonly used in cooking. Other varieties include bush basil, which is less pungent and purple basil which is used for decorative purposes. Holy basil has mauve colored leaves and is slightly lemon scented while cinnamon basil has notes of cinnamon.
As a carminative, basil helps to relieve intestinal gas. The oils and flavonoids found in basil have potent antioxidant, anti-cancer, antiviral and anti-microbial properties. The antioxidant benefits of basil are associated with its two active constituents Orientin and vicenin. The antiviral benefits are associated with its volatile oils, which contain estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene. Lab studies show the effectiveness of basil in restricting growth of numerous bacteria. These oils have demonstrated the ability to inhibit several species of pathogenic bacteria that have become resistant to commonly used antibiotic drugs. Like the COX-2 drug Celebrix, eugenol blocks cyclooxygenase, an enzyme which promotes inflammation.
Basil is a very good source of vitamin K, with just 5 leaves providing 10 mcg or 13% of the daily values.
When buying fresh basil, make sure that the leaves are clean and shiny without any black marks. To extend shelf-life, place a small bunch in a plastic bag, blow some air in bag and place into freezer. Basil stored this way will last for several weeks. Whole or torn leaves protect the delicate clove and anise-like aroma better than cut leaves.
Basil is often referred to as the “tomato herb” because it accents tomato-based dishes so nicely. But it also complements other vegetables and can be added to stews and soups.
Pesto, which combines fresh basil with olive oil, pine nuts and parmesan cheese, is a great way to enjoy this herb. Drizzle pesto sauce over sliced tomatoes. Or, combine with low-fat milk to make a healthy pesto sauce with chicken.
Basil has traditionally been given as a good-luck present to new homeowners.