by Mary Jo
I grew up in the farm country of Western New York and had a fine vegetable garden, but tomatoes were basically just another vegetable, less prized than sweet corn or squash or potatoes. There were none in my garden. In retrospect, I think that being so far north meant that tomatoes didn't grow as well as they do farther south.
I formulated this theory after moving to Maryland, where tomatoes are very nearly a religion. <G> Perfect, juicy, sun-ripened Maryland tomatoes are much sought after. Locations of farm stands with great tomatoes are greedily exchanged.
And where there are tomatoes, there should be basil. Being a northerner, I didn't make the connection until some years back I read a piece in the Baltimore Sun by a local Italian-American journalist saying that he grew basil in his back yard because people in his family had grown their own basil for centuries.
Being historically inclined, I thought that sounded pretty interesting, and soon I noticed that in spring, all the supermarkets seemed to have basil plants in little peat pots, ready to pop into the ground as soon as it's warm enough. So I planted some basil in the flowerboxes on my deck, and now I'm a convert. Fresh basil is AMAZING.
Basil is possibly native to India, where it's been cultivated for over 5000 years, but it had spread into Europe by the time of the ancient Greeks. It's a member of the mint family, which probably explains the wonderful scent. There are many
variations, but most common is sweet basil, which has been known as "the royal herb" or "the king of herbs."
Dried basil loses most of its flavor and is reminiscent of hay, but the fresh variety makes many things taste wonderful. A classic Italian dish is caprese salad, which is fresh sliced tomatoes, ditto fresh sliced mozzarella, and fresh basil, seasoned with a little salt and olive oil and maybe a bit of fresh ground pepper. If all the ingredients aren't fresh, forget it, but if they are, the dish is sublime and the red, white, and green colors echo the Italian flag in a nicely patriotic way.
But basil is good in so many ways. I like to chop some fresh leaves up and scramble them with an egg and if I've feeling decadent, some grated cheese. Lovely. The Mayhem Consultant is half Italian, and he once mentioned a salad his family members made that was sliced tomatoes, chopped fresh basil, olive oil, and salt and pepper. I gave it a try, and now it's a summer staple around here.
It's a romance, really. Tomatoes and basil, born to be together! <G> Bruschetta, which is chopped tomatoes and basil and a little olive oil on toasted bread is another simple taste superstar.
But basil is splendid in other applications, too. I discovered pesto sauce some years ago when a friend said her basil was going crazy in her garden so she'd decided to make pesto, and she handed me a small container with green stuff sloshing around inside. It was love at first taste. <G>
These days prepared pesto is probably found in most supermarkets (at least, it is in Maryland), and it's very versatile. As Wikipedia says, it's traditionally made of "crushed garlic, European pine nuts, coarse salt, basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese) and pecorino sardo (cheese made from sheep's milk), all blended with olive oil." Wonderful tossed with pasta--I love it with tortellini--it can also be served with fish, eggs, and other things. Someone somewhere is probably making pesto or basil ice cream, and if so, I'd like to taste it.
I realize that many of you already know what I've been prattling about, but I like talking about my summer basil. <G> That's it surrounded by flowers in one of my deck flower boxes.
Fresh herbs in general are a wonderful thing, and even if it isn't practical for you to grow any of your own, they're now widely available commercially. Nothing perks up a dish like fresh herbs and many are easy to grow: oregano, chives, thyme, sage, and more. So if you haven't tried growing your own herbs, give fresh basil a try--you won't regret it!
Do you grow your own herbs? If so, which ones? And if you don't grow them, do you cook with them when you can?