Basil, one of the most ancient herbs, is also a comparative newcomer, as far as the American spice scene is concerned. Though no stranger to herb gardeners and gourmet cooks, basil did not "bloom" here until after the big pizza invasion was well underway.

While most know it best as Italian, basil appears in the cooking of many other countries as well--some of them far removed from the sunny Mediterranean.

Insalata di Riso con Basilico is an Italian dish that counters two American images of Italian cooking; the starch is not pasta, and the principal herb is not oregano. That is because the recipe is from Northern Italy. Surprising as it might sound, rice--not pasta--is the starch of choice in many parts of the North.

Basil is the featured herb in many Northern dishes. This rice salad recipe also calls for garlic and black pepper--both universal to dishes of Northern Italy.

Basil is not exclusive to the North. Basil is the principal herb in an interesting frittata made with pasta. Cooked pasta goes in with the eggs, when this glorified omelet is cooked. For seasoning, a combination of herbs, led by basil, accompanies Parmesan cheese.

The seasoning of a tomato-based spaghetti sauce is often a simple matter in Italy. It involves generous use of basil, garlic, onion and some black pepper. Naturally, oregano will be used instead of basil at times, and sometimes the spicing will be more complex; but, con basilico is a popular concept.

Basil is popular in many other lands--in Russia, for example. In Georgia, there is a surprising sour plum sauce that depends on basil. This classic recipe of the region is served frequently with shaslik (kebabs). Tkemali begins with cooked and pureed sour plums, which are then spiced with basil, garlic, cilantro (coriander leaves) and a spark of red pepper. The sauce contains no sugar; it is a savory accompaniment, not the typically fruity recipe.

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Insalata Di Riso Con Basilico (Italian Rice Salad with Basil)
1 cup arborio or long-grain rice
2 tbsps olive oil
1 cup diced eggplant
1.5 cups diced zucchini
1 cup diced sweet red bell pepper
3 tbsps olive oil
2 tbsps lemon juice
1.5 tsps basil leaves, crushed
1 tsp salt
.5-tsp garlic powder
.25-tsp ground black pepper

In a 4-qt saucepan, bring 3qts water to a boil. Add rice; cook until tender, 14-16 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat oil until hot. Add eggplant, zucchini and red pepper; cook and stir until vegetables are crisp-tender, about 5 mins; set aside. Prepare dressing by combining in a small bowl olive oil, lemon juice, basil, salt, garlic powder and black pepper until well-blended; set aside. Drain rice; rinse in cold water; drain thoroughly. In a large bowl, combine rice, reserved vegetables and dressing; toss to coat thoroughly. Serve at room temperature.

Yield: 4 portions, 4 cups