Life Health & Wellbeing

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Basil - the taste and scent of a happy summer in one bite

Studies show that the much-loved herb is a mood-enhancer that can help manage stress, writes Rozanne Stevens

Rozanne Stevens

Published 18/08/2014 | 00:00

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Rozanne Stevens

Basil is my happy herb. I absolutely adore basil - the very scent of it makes me feel happy and uplifted. With this glorious summer, I have been living on Italian-style Caprese salads of beautiful heirloom tomatoes and Toonsbridge buffalo mozzarella from Cork. Simply dressed with torn basil leaves, balsamic reduction and extra virgin olive oil. Simple yet perfect.

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It turns out that basil really is a happy herb, it's not just the effect it has on me. Studies by Dr Hans Wohlmuth, and numerous other studies, show that basil is a mood enhancer and can be used to help treat stress and depression. Basil, particularly a variety called sacred basil, is what is called an adaptogen. It helps the body to deal with high levels of stress by reducing the body's cortisol level, which is one of the main stress hormones. It improves mood by helping you feel more uplifted and also improves concentration and the ability to think clearly in stressful situations. Based on that alone, I think we could all do with some basil in our lives!

Basil is also a natural anti-inflammatory which can help control and minimise inflammation. Inflammation is suspected of playing a key role in the development of heart disease, arthritis, allergies, asthma and many other debilitating conditions. Studies by the University of Michigan found that natural basil has similar anti-inflammatory actions as widely used pharmaceuticals like naproxen, aspirin and ibuprofen.

The anti-inflammatory properties are especially beneficial for arthritis sufferers - the volatile oil in basil called eugenol blocks the enzymes that cause swelling. This is a common symptom for arthritis sufferers that causes the pain and swelling around the joints that is difficult to relieve and makes day-to-day life and movement uncomfortable.

Basil is also highly concentrated in antioxidants that have protective properties for the whole body. These antioxidants help improve blood flow to the heart and brain and may even help protect against Alzheimer's disease. The magnesium in basil helps to also relax blood vessels and improve circulation throughout the body.

An excellent herb for indigestion, stomach cramps and constipation, the natural oils in basil are soothing yet get things moving. You can add fresh basil, basil pesto or even basil oil to dishes to help your food digest better and ease discomfort.

Easy basil pesto

  • Home-made pesto is super versatile and the perfect way to preserve the taste of summer in a jar.
  • 200g fresh basil leaves
  • 200ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 large garlic cloves, peeled
  • 40g Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 40g toasted pine nuts or walnuts
  • salt and pepper

Method:

  • Pour half the olive oil into a food processor. Add the basil leaves, garlic and pine nuts.
  • On a low speed, blitz the pesto while gradually pouring in the rest of the olive oil until it forms a rough paste.
  • Transfer to a bowl and stir in the cheese. Add more olive oil if it's too thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Pour into a sterilised glass jar and cover with a little olive oil. Cover with a tight fitting lid and refrigerate. If you scoop out some pesto, cover with a little more oil to seal the surface against air.

Creative ways with basil pesto:

  • Toss plenty of basil pesto through wholewheat pasta and roasted summer vegetables. Grate over Parmesan and add toasted pine nuts.
  • Spread basil pesto liberally on a pizza base instead of the usual tomato pizza sauce. Top with strips of prosciutto, torn buffalo mozzarella and sliced tomatoes.
  • Basil mayonnaise: Make your own basil mayonnaise by mixing basil pesto, mayonnaise, a good squeeze of lemon and salt and pepper. I sometimes use half sour cream, half mayonnaise. Delicious with fish, chicken and in wraps.
  • Add a blob of basil pesto on top of almost any soup for an instant flavour burst. Particularly on minestrone, tomato, roasted red pepper and bean soups.
  • Use two tablespoons of basil pesto added to your raw meatball mix. Cook as usual and serve with a rice tomato sauce, pasta or wild rice.
  • Basil butter: Mix 1-2 tablespoons of basil pesto into 125g of softened butter. Shape into a log and wrap in baking parchment like a Christmas cracker. Slice a coin or two and use on steak, bread, fish or chicken.
  • Liven your usual mashed potatoes with a dollop or two of basil pesto mixed in.
  • Spread basil pesto or basil pesto butter onto hot corn on the cob and get stuck in.
  • Boil some baby potatoes then toss with basil pesto, salt and pepper.
  • For a potato salad, mix with home-made basil mayonnaise, steamed asparagus, green beans and mangetout.
  • Change up hummus by stirring through a spoon of basil pesto and serving it with crudités and pita crisps.
  • For quesadillas, spread a thin layer of basil pesto onto one tortilla wrap, sprinkle with grated cheddar cheese and top with another wrap. Dry fry in a fan until toasted and melting.
  • Delicious stirred through scrambled eggs and served with roasted tomatoes and wholewheat toast.
  • For a quick fish dish, spread a layer of basil pesto on a firm white fish such as cod or coley. Wrap in Parma ham and roast on a bed of baby tomatoes for 20 minutes at 180°C. Serve with chickpea mash and wilted spinach.
  • For a creamy pasta sauce, mix two ­tablespoons of basil pesto with a 250g tub of crème fraîche and toss through hot pasta. Also delicious on chicken.
  • For a delicious bean salad, mix basil pesto with cannellini beans, halved cherry tomatoes, crumbled feta cheese and toasted pine nuts.
  • For a health dip, mix with plain Greek ­yoghurt and serve with crudités and ­vegetable crisps.
  • Dress a home-made burger with basil pesto, grilled aubergine, sliced tomato and mozzarella for a Mediterranean twist.
  • Flash fry scallops in a searing hot pan or griddle pan and serve with basil pesto, roasted tomatoes and a good squeeze of lemon.
  • Cook tiger prawns with garlic and chilli and serve with basil mayonnaise as a dip.
  • Serve a baked potato with basil pesto and topped with extra cheese.
  • Make a basil pesto salad dressing by thinning it down with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.
  • For a quick meal, spread basil pesto onto a sheet of puff pastry, top with fresh tomato slices and mozzarella and bake in hot oven until golden and bubbling.
  • Basil pesto cream cheese: Mix two ­tablespoons of basil pesto with 250g of low-fat cream cheese. Use as a sandwich spread, with pasta, on top of baked potatoes or crostini.
  • Stuff a chicken breast with pesto cream cheese by making an incision in the fattest part of the breast and pushing in a ­spoonful. You can also add sun-dried tomatoes. Bake for 25 minutes until hot and cooked through.
  • Basil croutons: cube up stale bread into large croutons. Mix basil pesto with olive oil and toss with the bread. Spread onto a lined baking tray and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 10-12 minutes until crispy.

I always think of basil as a delicate herb that is difficult to grow, especially in the Irish climate. But the Romans believed that if you swore at basil as it was growing and treated it harshly, it would grow better!

Better advice would be to put your pot of basil in a warm, sunny but sheltered place like a sunny window sill. Make sure that the soil is rich and well drained.

Why not try different varieties of basil for fun? I've had success with piccolo basil which has tiny, fragrant leaves, perfect to pick off and use.

 

Recipes are taken from Delish and Relish Cookbooks by Rozanne Stevens.

For cookbooks and healthy cookery courses, log onto www.rozannestevens.com

Twitter: @RozanneStevens

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