July 27th — A few years ago, I finally got chapped by paying five bucks for wimpy little fresh herbs that wouldn’t last a day in my kitchen. I didn’t know how cheap – or easy — it was to grow my own, I just sensed that there had to be a better way. Kind of like when you realize that store bought cookies will never, ever, as long as you live, be as good as homemade cookies.
So last year, I planted basil, parsley, dill and cilantro in a little corner in my back yard. There was no great strategy, no garden plan – I bought some plants and Larry (who helps my keep my house standing) helped lower them into the hot, red, clay ground. The dill and cilantro scorched out in the hot sun. The parsley hung in there, but it was curly parsley and I really prefer flat leaf parsley, which isn’t as chewy but has better flavor, I think.
But the basil? It went bonkers in my yard. It procreated overnight and overran my little corner herb garden, stretching up to my window, begging to be smelled, stroked, picked and enjoyed. Big leafy stalks, smooth and hydrated, the most perfect, peaceful color of green. I looked at my basil and it made my happy, giddy even. I loved the texture of the leaves – the large, flat leaves and the small sweet ones that grow around the lower stems, like soft, sweet hair at the back of a baby’s nape.
Basil made me feel competent. Forget the fact that any idiot with some dirt and some seeds can grow it. I did it.
The aroma filled my kitchen and last year, I spent a week each summer month making vats (and I ain’t kidding) of pesto. I used a recipe out of my favorite cookbook. I shredded my own Parmesan cheese, I used only the finest olive oil, I carefully crushed and peeled hundreds of cloves of garlic and I mastered the art of toasting pine nuts. And if I may, I have a little secret about toasting pinenuts. Listen to me now and save yourself some money, heartache and batteries in your smoke alarm, friends. You are to never, EVER take your eyes off of the pine nuts, you hear me? I repeat, don’t EVER TURN YOUR BACK ON THE PINE NUTS. You may think you have time to run to the potty, or check your voicemail or answer the door or even fetch yourself a Diet Coke. Don’t be fooled. You can’t EVER TAKE YOUR EYES OFF THE PINE NUTS! They will, without fail, burn, scorch and set off your smoke alarm…and make you really mad because pine nuts are not cheap and you will be in the throes of making pesto and you’ll have to STOP EVERYTHING, load up your kids in the car and go to the store for some more pinenuts. So heed my words.
But here’s the deal about basil. Besides pesto, there not really a whole lot you can do with it. Sure, there is Caprese Salad (love it, who doesn’t?). And I can make about 15 different kinds of fab-U appetizers featuring basil and other creative pantry ingredients. And there is the idea that you can “sub” basil for other “herb-based” recipes – basil mojitos, anyone?
But what I’ve found is, not so much. Basil = Pesto or Caprese Salad. And since mozzarella doesn’t really freeze, I have become the Pesto Princess. Coming to your house for dinner? Let me bring a pesto pasta. Needing to thank you for keeping my children one afternoon? Let me offer you a quart of frozen pesto. Worried about surviving a nuclear holocaust? By all means, drop by my safe room in the basement where I have dozens of quarts of frozen pesto lying in wait. Believing that garlic keeps you cleansed and healthy? Look no further than Charla’s House of Pesto . I went through six months of fall and winter doling out pesto to friends and family and I still have some left in my freezer – guarding my final little quarts until spring sprung and I could…plant some more basil.
Much like childbirth, I forgot the agony and only remember the ecstasy. The agony of toasting and grinding pine nuts, shredding hard Parmesan until the blade on my food processor was dulled, washing and spinning thousands of basil leaves, and reeking of garlic for weeks. And I only remember the good – of opening my freezer door and having stacks and stacks of moss-green Tupperware containers staring at me. I love my basil.