Friday, September 07, 2012

Growing Basil in Fez - Food or Mosquito repellent?

Basil is a common name for the culinary herb Ocimum basilicum, of the family Lamiaceae, sometimes known as Saint Joseph's Wort in some English-speaking countries. Ask most Moroccans about basil and they will tell you that it is grown to deter mosquitos. Few of them use it as a flavouring herb. That is such a pity as the flavour is exquisite.

Pot-grown Basil in Fez with leaves up to 12 cm in length! 
The variety of basil commonly grown in Morocco is a smaller-leafed variety, possibly a form of O. kilimandscharicum which has a camphor concentration of 61%.  The use of basil as a mosquito deterrent by Moroccans is not simply folk-wisdom. A study of the essential oils shows anti-fungal and insect-repelling properties. A study reported in 2009 has confirmed that extracts from the plant are very toxic to mosquitos.

Basil is considered a valuable antioxidant and also used for its medicinal properties in Ayurveda, the traditional medicinal system of India and Siddha medicine, a traditional Tamil system of medicine.

A Moroccan variety of small-leaf basil
A more exotic use of basil if referred to in an African legend that claims that basil protects against scorpions, while the English botanist Culpeper cites one "Hilarius, a French physician" as affirming it as common knowledge that smelling basil too much would breed scorpions in the brain.

All of that aside, its use in salad or pesto shows its flavours off superbly and with such prolific growth this season in Fez, it is time to start enjoying it.

While one can give pesto a slightly Moroccan flavour by substituting coriander for basil, genuine pesto can be given a Moroccan twist by the inclusion of a small amount of preserved lemon.

Fresh Basil Pesto with Moroccan Twist
(Great with fried chicken pieces on pasta)
Prep time: 10 minutes

2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Romano cheese
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts
3 medium sized garlic cloves, minced
4-5 thin strips of preserved lemon rind (rinsed)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Special equipment needed: A food processor

1 Combine the basil in with the pine nuts, pulse a few times in a food processor. (If you are using walnuts instead of pine nuts and they are not already chopped, pulse them a few times first, before adding the basil.) Add the garlic and preserved lemon strips, pulse a few times more.
2 Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on. Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula. Add the grated cheese and pulse again until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Serve with pasta, or over baked potatoes, or spread over toasted baguette slices.
Yield: Makes 1 cup.

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