Food & Drink

On the Table: Tasty ways to use basil

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that a column on tomatoes would trigger reader remarks about basil. The two are summertime essentials for many of us. So to last week’s call to plant your tomatoes, add basil, too.

Fragrant basil leaves are used as an herb for seasoning other foods. One of the most common ways they’re used is in pesto – a blended paste made from pine nuts, olive oil, basil and Parmesan cheese – mixed into pasta dishes and as a flavorful sandwich spread.

Basil is a rich source of vitamin K and manganese, and it’s high in beta-carotene, vitamin C, folate, iron, calcium and several other nutrients.

Like tomatoes, you’ll find seedlings at garden stores. And like tomatoes, there are dozens of varieties.

My favorite is the common, Italian sweet basil. It has round, dark green leaves with points. Other varieties may have streaks of red or purple and hints of flavors such as lemon or cinnamon.

Basil is easy to grow, and it’s common to harvest it into early fall. There are lots of uses for it. Try some of these:

• Arrange whole basil leaves on cheese pizza for color and flavor.

• Add torn basil leaves to marinated summer vegetable salads or tossed green salads.

• Use whole leaves in a simple Caprese salad made with sliced, backyard tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and served on a platter.

• Layer basil leaves onto summer sandwiches in place of lettuce.

• Add chopped basil to cooked pasta tossed with diced, fresh tomatoes, toasted pine nuts or chopped walnuts, shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese and black olives.

Fresh basil will keep in the refrigerator for a few days if you wrap it in moist paper towels and store it in a plastic bag. If you have lots of extra, store it in the freezer.

Brush leaves with olive oil and store them flat in freezer bags for up to several months. The leaves will darken, but you can still use them in cooked foods.

The big bonus of eating more basil: You’ll want to eat more summer vegetables, too. Start planting!

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.