The calendar may say July 2009, but I am thinking about the summer JJ and I grew hundreds of tomatoes and cucumbers, along with bushels of basil, all planted along a narrow, hand-hoed-bed, that ran ragged along an asphalt driveway.
The Dickensian landlord was so miserly we were forbidden to use the hosepipe and had to water our thirsty produce every evening after work with dozens of gallon-size milk jugs.
Webought a half dozen assorted tomato plants, basil and a couple of cucumber plants from a local nursery. Later, when we went back to buy wire cages to support the towering tomatoes, the owner of the nursery threw in a bunch of straggly, unloved plants headed for the dust bin. We were thrilled and eagerly added them to our enticing vegetable patch, feeling all the world like a couple of farmers.
This was our first attempt at growing food. Coming from California, I was spoiled by an astonishing choice of farmers markets, year round. When I landed in New Jersey, twelve miles from Manhattan, I quickly discovered that summer was the only time one could find good, local produce.
Oh! But how things grew in fourteen long, hot, unbearably humid weeks. Never had we seen such a tempting profusionof tomatoes, cucumbers (in spite of the slugs) and basil. Every day we were treated with an orgy of the freshest food imaginable.
Our single basil plant, grew into a tree and became a legend of near Biblical proportions. Every evening we would collect all the leaves, only to have them magically replaced by the next evening.
With such a bountiful harvest, we spent all our spare time making pesto, gazpacho, salsa, and bruschetta. And felt richer than rich with such perfect ingredients, ours for the taking. One of my happiest memories is sitting together in the kitchen, inches from an icy air conditioner going full blast, feeding each other our garlic infused inspirations, marveling that a few simple ingredients could taste so good.
Growing our own food made us better cooks.
Gardeners say if you want to understand a plant, start by sowing it's seed. The same wisdom applies to cooking. If you want to understand an ingredient, if you want to appreciate all it has to offer, grow it yourself.
That summer, JJ and I fell head-over-heels in love with tomatoes, basil and cucumbers. Five years later, that passion remains. Every visit I make to the farmers market in summer, begins with a quest for the freshest, tastiest tomatoes, cucumbers and basil. And you know what? Nothing comes close to what we grew ourselves in that mean little patch of earth.
This summer, I've been growing two large pots of basil in my kitchen window. I can just barely grow basil in England. I can't pretend it's Italy, California, or New Jersey, but basil in pots, will grow in England in the summer, if you love on them enough - and if we get a bit of sunshine.
Unable to contain myself, I chop up every last fragrant leaf and make a pesto I can still taste in my mouth twelve hour later. Summer of 2004 Pesto, when JJ hand chopped two heads of garlic for every precious bowl, between dancing to Garrison Keillor's "A Praire Home Companion," on the radio.
WHAT YOU NEED
2 huge handfuls of fresh basil
1 large head of garlic (2 if you're fearless)
2 cups of pinenuts
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp each coarse salt and pepper
2 cups of Parmesan cheese
WHAT YOU DO JJ and I made pesto entirely by hand, chopping everything finely. These days, though, I usually use a Cuisinart.
Toast the pine nuts by placing them on a baking tray in hot oven set at 200c 400f for about six minutes, or until golden brown. Remove and set aside. Wash basil, towel dry, pluck off all the leaves, place in bowl of food processor, fitted with chopping blade. Peel garlic and toss cloves into food processor with basil. Add most of the toasted pinenuts and olive oil, saving a smattering of pinenuts for garnish.
Chop and pulse ingredients until everything is finely blended into a bright green sauce. Test consistency. If you want thinner sauce, add a bit more olive oil.
Empty pesto into a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Grate the Parmesan cheese and blend it into the sauce --- or scatter it on top, if you’re serving the pesto with your favourite pasta.
A little of this pesto goes a long ways. It's quite potent, especially if you went with two heads of garlic. When serving with pasta, I reserve a couple of tablespoons of the pasta's cooking water. After draining the pasta, I toss it back into the cooking pot, then add about half the pesto I think I will need with the pasta water. Blend well, coating the pasta evenly. Taste. You can add a little more pesto as you need it, but you'll be surprised how little it takes.
Ideas and Suggestions
Pesto is good for more than adorning pasta, though it does such a stellar job of it, that's more than enough. JJ and I often enjoyed pesto on toasted slices of crusty sourdough bread made, not in San Francisco, but in Brooklyn. We also love it on omelettes and scrambled eggs; as an extravagant topping for oven roasted tomatoes and stuffed Italian peppers, and as a pizza topping, make that The Pizza Topping. We don't have nearly enough pesto in our lives. Who needs meat, when you have something this gorgeous to eat? Even if you don't dance, homemade pesto will make you want to dance. I can honestly say, JJ and I never made pesto without dancing, especially after we tasted it. Some of our favourite dance tunes, include Portland Oregon's Pink Martini's Hang On Little Tomato and Donde Estas Yolanda; Japans' Saori Yuki's Mayonaka No Bossa Nova (Midnight Bossa Nova) Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock; the Gypsy Kings Volare and La Bamba.
If you love dancing with someone, if your bodies naturally move together, it will be the same when making love. Food and dance are our most primal foreplay.
Make your own dance collection. What are the songs that make you pickup your heels? Dancing in your kitchen is probably as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
Hmmmm. Who says you need to dance with your clothes on?