Thursday, September 18, 2008

    Summer Basil

    Each year during the month of May, I visit a garden or plant something, like cat grass or flowers, in memory of my Mom, Eve, who died of breast cancer in 1994. Both her birthday, which sometimes falls on Mother's Day, and the anniversary of her death, are in May. Depending on the year, and how softly the late spring breezes blow, this cluster of important days can be a blessing or a curse; a white wine spritzer of nostalgia, or a heavily brandied red sangria of memory overload.

    When I was caught up in the whirlwind of wedding planning earlier this year, I definitely identified more with the latter, but my wedding actually allowed me to celebrate my Mom in a way that a 15-year-old cannot. Feeling much lighter than in Mays past, this season, I planted a bright basil garden on my new front steps. Not much a gardener or cook herself, I think she would have been quite bemused by my results.

    I decided to use two faux metal tubs and basic soil. I planted way too many packets of everything, and not exactly in rows like the instructions said. It took just a few days for the first basil sprouts to rear their bright green leaves. When the basil was first growing, I'd take my morning coffee to the porch and tend to the babies. Unlike other things I've attempted to grow, I knew that if my basil flourished, I'd be able to cook with it daily, and save money on herbs for the summer.

    This picture is hazy due to the early morning New Orleans steam. The pink planter contains my Genovese, a very standard basil. The blue has lemon basil, which smells like fresh lemon zest when you rub it.

    The exuberant, puddle-jumping, hello-world-I-hear-you-singing-your-summer-song thundershowers of June made me, and the plants, happy and tall in no time (er, not me with the tall). I got into the habit of throwing open my front doors and going out on my porch to watch the rain pool, cascade, and funnel on the sidewalk and street, all the while thankful to know that our neighborhood didn't flood during Katrina. I'd fuss with the positions of the tubs, or turn them each half a rotation. Southern air is never more bursting with possibilities than at the end of a summer afternoon storm.

    For my first pinch back, or trim, which was a direction straight from the seed packet, I had to look up "pinch-back" online. Now I'm a pinching pro. (Sometimes I get a little overzealous, but it's so satisfactory!).

    Unfortunately a basil disease, which was a combination of bug bites and a white veiny je ne sais quoi came on in July and August, as the plants grew wider and taller. I often pinched them back and sprayed them with an organic bug spray, which helped a little. The lemon basil suffered worse than the Genovese.

    I admit, fighting the basil disease was a little more effort than I wanted to expend on something that was supposed to bring me pleasure, but such is life. There were a few days where I ignored the basil completely, but it usually rebounded with some loving tending and a strong sprinkle from the watering can.

    Every time I picked the basil to use for a meal, I marveled over it: "I planted this! I tended this! I picked this! I washed and dried and chopped this! And it smells and tastes brilliant."

    For eggs, pasta, rice, toast, hashbrowns, or anything else that might sound better with basil, my home-rolled basil butter was the only butter in our house this summer.

    One homemade, pan-grilled, juicy rare skirt steak with basil butter for me, please!

    The ultimate basil dish was the culmination of all my watering, pesticide-spraying, tending, pinching, singing, scolding, dreaming, talking, and thinking -- fresh summer pesto from my very own basil. I actually don't even love the richness of pesto, but I thoroughly enjoyed making and eating it.

    In spite of my basil disease, I had just enough to yield a cup of flavorful, bright pesto, which we found many uses for over the next few days.

    The pesto over these store-bought ravioli, filled with gorgonzola and red wine, was particularly good. I put the tomatoes in the bowl cold, which was a mistake -- I should've oven-roasted them for an hour or so. Next summer I will roast away, though only in the evening, when the oven's warmth won't act as a counter to the air conditioning.

    This wasn't the best-crafted sandwich, but you get the point. I had hoped to make one more pesto, to impress the in-laws on their first visit to New Orleans (especially since they gave me the Cuisanart), but Hurricane Gustav foiled my plans. When we evacuated, the bright tubs were shoved into our backyard shed so as not to become flying basil saucers of destruction in the hurricane winds. When we arrived home after Gustav passed, I took a moment to mourn before Jon dumped the dry plants and soil in the trash can. It's okay though; the in-laws' rescheduled trip now falls at a time when my basil would've been out of season anyway.

    Each year I hold my breath in May, and exhale a sigh of relief when June begins. Next May, the anticipation of fresh dirt under my nails and the smell of fresh basil on my cutting board should allow me to breathe easier. I'm think I'll also try my hand at growing mint, and instead of white wine spritzers and heavy sangria, I'll muddle and drink a New Orleans classic -- a mint julep.