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    This popular herb packs far more than an aromatic punch.

    Basil. With its distinct aroma and leafy good looks, this plant is one of the most widely known and grown herbs in the world. Often associated with Mediterranean cooking, basil is native to India and Asia as well as parts of Africa. Sweet basil is the most common, but dozens of other varieties include lemon, cinnamon, and Thai.

    Nutritional benefits of basil

    This member of the mint family has been used as a medicinal plant, and its oils and extracts are said to have antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Fragrant fresh basil, for instance, offers a healthy dose of blood-clotting vitamin K -- 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh basil provide 27% of the RDA -- as well as vitamin A, manganese, and magnesium. (You can find more vitamin K in green leafy veggies such as cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and spinach -- but talk to your doctor if you’re taking a blood thinner such as warfarin; you don’t want too much or too little K.)

    Use fresh basil whenever possible, and when cooking with it, add to the dish during the last few minutes for maximum flavor.

    Chilled Basil Tomato Red Pepper Soup

    Makes 6 1-cup servings and 12 slices garlic toast


    1 large red bell pepper

    2 lbs ripe tomatoes, cut in chunks

    1 cup spicy tomato juice

    ½ cup low-fat, low-salt chicken or beef stock

    1 tbsp lemon juice

    Pinch of sugar

    10 whole fresh basil leaves

    Salt and pepper to taste

    Low-fat sour cream for garnish

    10 chopped basil leaves for garnish

    Garlic toast

    1 whole-grain baguette, sliced

    1 large garlic clove, minced

    ¼ cup olive oil

    1. Preheat oven to 375°. Roast bell -pepper in oven until charred and soft, about 10 minutes. Peel and seed pepper and cut into chunks.
    2. Puree the bell pepper, tomatoes, tomato juice, chicken or beef stock, lemon juice, and sugar until well combined.
    3. Add the 10 basil leaves and continue pureeing until smooth.
    4. Cover soup and chill for 2 to 3 hours or overnight.
    5. Serve cold soup with a garnish of sour cream and chopped basil.
    6. To prepare the garlic toast, sauté garlic in olive oil until golden, 3 to 4 minutes.
    7. Brush baguette slices with garlic oil and toast in a 375° oven for 5 to 7 minutes or until golden brown. Serve immediately with chilled soup.

    Per serving (1 cup soup and 2 garlic toasts): 265 calories, 8 g protein, 32 g carbohydrate, 12 g fat, 1.8 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5.5 g fiber, 403 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 41%.

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