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Although we normally associate basil with Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, this herb actually originated in India and was brought to the Mediterranean via the spice routes. The ancient Greeks called basil the "royal herb". They believed only the king should harvest basil and then only with a golden sickle. In ancient Rome, the name for basil, Basilescus, referred to Basilisk, a fire-breathing dragon. Romans believed ingesting basil would charm this frightening beast. Interesting to note today basil is used as an antidote to venom. 

          Now available at the Boulder Farmers Market are several flavorful varieties of basil-sweet green, purple, Thai, lemon, cinnamon, and holy. While you're strolling through the market this week, consider purchasing one. You won't find anything like them in your supermarket. 

Here are some tidbits about the different varieties of basil available at the market:  

Sweet basil, the type most familiar to us, has fragrant, broad, deep green leaves. Its robust flavor is a cross between licorice and cloves and its spiciness pairs nicely with ripe red tomatoes and soft cheeses like mozzarella and Brie.    

Purple basil is one of the more tender varieties.  It is similar to sweet basil but it has purple leaves. This variety should give your dishes the same flavoring as sweet basil but use purple basil when you want to create an interesting color contrast.  

Thai basil, also called Siam Queen, has a very spicy taste and a stronger licorice flavor and scent than sweet basil. Thai basil is used in all types of Thai cooking as well as several Asian and middle eastern cultures. 

  Cinnamon basil has a warm, spicy, cinnamon-like flavor with just a hint of cloves. Its leaves have purple veins and pair nicely in dishes with a sweet, spicy taste; like fruit salads, chutney, sweet-and-sour recipes, and chicken marinades. This variety is a stocky, vigorous plant with tiny white, pale pink, or delicate lavender flowers. Even the tiny flowers of the cinnamon basil plant are edible. Their flavor is milder than the leaves but sprinkling the flowers over salads or pasta adds a concentrated flavor and sparks of color. They give any dish a fresh, festive look. 

Lemon basil has green leaves and a mild lemony flavor. It pairs nicely with fish. 

Holy basil has reddish purple leaves-the hotter the summer, the deeper the purple-and a delicious, sweet, clove-like aroma. In South Asia holy basil is known as tulsi. Many Hindus keep this plant in their homes believing it will protect them against misfortune and bring them harmony, serenity, luck, and pureness of spirit.  

Holy basil is highly regarded in India for its medicinal properties as well as its culinary uses. The essential oil from holy basil contains a compound called eugenol, which gives it antiseptic properties. It can kill germs, reduce swelling, and keep insects away. Hindus use holy basil to treat skin conditions as well as coughs, bronchitis, and diabetes. Ayurvedic literature claims it is an effective treatment for snakebites. 

You can use holy basil to flavor any dish.  Its reddish purple leaves make a colorful addition to salads. Cook it like cabbage.  

Following is one of my favorite recipes using sweet basil. It makes a simple summer supper. Serve it with a green salad and a loaf of sourdough bread. 

Fresh Tomato Bisque with Basil
Serves 4 to 6

            2 cups white onion chopped
            3 tablespoons butter
            2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
            1 bay leaf
            2 teaspoons minced garlic
            1 teaspoon salt
            ½ teaspoon large grind black pepper 

In a large kettle, sauté onion in butter over medium heat until tender.  Add tomatoes, bay leaf, garlic, basil, salt, and pepper and stir to combine. Simmer for 30 minutes or until tender. 

            2 cups half-and-half
            2 cup milk
            1 ¾ cups canned chicken broth
            ¼ cup brandy
            2 tablespoons fresh basil, slivered 

Discard bay leaf. Add half-and-half, milk, chicken broth, brandy, and basil to the tomato mixture. Cook until just heated through. Ladle into soup bowls.  

Shopping:  Select evenly colored leaves with no sign of wilting or yellowing. 

Storing:  Upon arriving home, wrap basil in slightly damp paper towels, place in a plastic bag, and refrigerate.  The leaves should keep nicely for up to 4 days.  To help prolong the life of basil, place it in a glass of water, stems down, cover with a plastic bag, secure the glass with a rubber band, and refrigerate.  Change the water every 2 days.  

Freezing:  To preserve fresh basil wash and thoroughly dry the leaves and place layers of leaves and then coarse salt in a container that can be tightly sealed. Or you can finely chop cleaned basil and combine it with a small amount of olive oil. Freeze it in tiny portions to use to flavor sauces or salad dressings. 

Drying:  Fresh basil has the best flavor, but here are some tips on drying basil if you'd like to hang on to one of these delightful varieties. Tie the leafy stems into bunches and hang them upside down in a warm, dry, dark place until dried. Crumble the leaves into small particles and store in an airtight jar.  

Cooking tip:  Dried herbs emit their best flavor when heated while fresh herbs lose their flavor if cooked too long. Add dried herbs at the beginning of cooking and fresh herbs near the end. 

Carol Ann Kates is the author of award-winning cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market, selected as one of the top ten favorite cookbooks by the Denver Post Food Staff.

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