Old storytellers knew it: Basil adds a bit of drama

Posted July 30, 2008, at 12 a.m.

How does your basil grow?

Lisabetta’ s grew lush and vibrant, fertilized with bloodshed and a broken heart.

In a tale from “The Decameron,” young Lisabetta fell hard for hired hand Lorenzo, whom her brothers then promptly slew. Well, lost love can make you crazy: Lisabetta dug up her paramour’ s head, planted it in a pot of basil and watered it daily with her tears. It grew thick and tall, but Betta’ s bros had it in for the basil as well. When they disposed of the herb, Lisabetta died of that too common malady, a busted-up heart, torn wide open.

Like its taste and aroma, basil’ s folklore is diverse and complex. It symbolizes both love and hate, passion and chastity, life and death. Hindus believe it first sprouted from the ashes of incinerated goddess Tulasi and still stuff it into the mouths of the dead to ensure safe passage into the afterlife. The Greeks, who tagged it with its royal name, thought it would key open the gates of heaven and they mixed it into holy water. Medieval Moldavians thought offering a sprig of basil would spring forth true love, while in Italy, sweet basil is called “bacia-nicola” (“kiss me, Nicholas”) and assists young signorinas in snagging a spouse.

Conversely, basil is also associated with scorpions sprouting in the brain, witches’ brews and the bad kind of voodoo. Victorians concluded that some varieties mean “best wishes” while others seethe with hate and malice.

But a posse of hate-heralding scorpions doesn’ t deter my taste for the pungent herb. Pots of Genovese, sweet and lemon basil adorn my front steps, their distinct scents intensified by the late July heat. Many evenings, I’ ll pluck a few leaves, roughly tear to release the essence, and throw into whatever veggie-pollo-pasta concoction I’ ve got cooking as a final layer of flavor. Basil also compliments grilled salmon nicely and adds depth when tossed into a citrus salad.

As for ensuring an ample crop, basil can be easily cultivated with nothing more than bright sunshine and an occassional summer shower. Trust me, a compost of severed heads and salty tears really doesn’ t work that well anyway.

Pasta with Asparagus and Basil

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4-6 cloves garlic, finely minced

? teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 pound asparagus, cut into ?-inch pieces

4 Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

1 cup beef or chicken stock

? cup torn fresh basil

8 ounces gemelli or penne pasta

2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/3 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and red pepper and saute for about 2 minutes. Add asparagus, tomatoes, stock and half of the basil (? cup). Cook about 8 to 10 minutes, until asparagus is slightly tender. Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, cook pasta until al dente. Drain and transfer to large bowl.

Pour sauce over pasta. Add cheese, parsley, remaining basil and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

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