Punch up the flavor of food with basil

LOS ANGELES With more than 60 types of basil available, here's a look at what you can do with this herb that is loaded with taste and flavor.

Sweet Italian is the most common variety. Its licorice-like flavor can really perk up a plate. A cousin of the mint family, this herb is easily snipped into dishes and drinks without effort.

Most of us know to snip it on Italian foods, but try it over mozzarella and tomatoes drizzled with Balsamic, known as a caprese salad. It's a hit as an appetizer.

Basil is also wonderful snipped into a field salad as a sassy surprise.

Pesto is often made with basil, oil, nuts and Parmesan, and used as a pasta sauce. You can also add it to lowfat sour cream as a dip for pita chips.

Thai basil is another popular type grown in the Southland. Smaller serrated edge leaves set it apart from big fat sweet Italian type. Thai basil has a hint of peppery heat, also with an anise or licorice flavor.

This particular type of basil is a hit in Asian dishes like pad Thai or soup.

There is also cinnamon basil, which smells like cinnamon. Cooks use it to flavor apple pie filling or fruit sauce for pork dishes. Some like to freeze the leaves in water to put in tea or flavored water.

Home gardeners might like to plant this variety near other plants as a way to grow organically as some garden bugs don't like the smell. Once dried, this basil can act as a potpourri freshener.

Lemon basil can be substituted for sweet Italian. Try snipping some over a combination of fruit salad and lemon yogurt.

The bottom line on basil: It is easy to cook with and easy to grow. With so many sweet and savory uses, this should be one of the first fresh herbs you try.

For some interesting recipes on using basil, see the July 2009 issue of /*Cooking Light/*.

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