Archive for August, 2006

Basil Time

No denying – in fact no escaping – it’s basil and tomato season. The combo is everywhere, at every level of splendor. Amazingly, even in August there are restaurants awash in styrofoam agribusiness tomatoes, leathery, soap-flavored basil     and mozzarella the texture of something vulcanized, but in most cases you can count on getting something pretty good,   and often you get something pretty great: a combination of dead ripe, sweet home grown tomato and tender young sun-kissed basil, one of gastronomy’s finest pairings, an all time winner   –

just not all the time, dammit!

Let’s consider giving it a rest, and not only because this marvy duo is less than fun when it shows up for the 10th time in a week. Time apart is also a boon to the tomatoes, which always end up playing second fiddle to their minty/musky   friend.

But that doesn’t mean basil should be neglected, not when it’s so good with snap beans, summer squash, grilled fish , pasta – pesto! (recipe follows)  – and if you are feeling nouvelle, nectarines.

Basil that’s ready to cut back right now. ( 3 or 4  days ago, actually) .See below for details.

* Harvesting. It’s best to gather basil at the end of the day. Flavor is strongest and sweetest then, and evening-cut stems last longer. Just be sure to get out there before the dew falls; wet leaves muck up recipes and rot fast in storage.

* Storing. Basil and the refrigerator are not friends; the cold turns the leaves black in very short order. It does pay to keep the stems in water, and since there’s nothing like having the inspiration right in front of you when you’re cooking, I usually keep a bouquet of  basil (along with other tender herbs such as parsley, dill, summer savory, and cilantro) in a jar of water near the prep area. Just strip all leaves that would be below the water line before you submerge the stems; change the water daily; and keep the jar out of the sun.

* Plant maintenance and multiplication. Basil gets grassy flavored and leathery as soon as it starts forming flowers. It also stops making green growth. So don’t let it bloom.

As soon as you see the slightest indication that flower stems are about to start, cut plants back, at least 2 or 3 branches down and even farther is better. Pruned plants will rebound quickly, sending out tender stems and tender leaves. As a plus, pruned-off stems with several leaf nodes can often be persuaded to send out roots.

Choose stems that do not have flowers. Store in jars of water as described above. Pot ’em up when roots are about ½ inch long and you’ll have plenty of young plants to tide you over the swing season (frosty nights; warm days; pots of basil in the sun, sheltered from frost by the porch roof). Be warned that if you root stems that have flower nodes you will not have young plants. You’ll have new old plants, which will promptly make tough flowering stems instead of tender growth.

(from The Modern Country Cook )

This is actually more a pistachio sauce with basil than anything that could legitimately be called pesto, but it’s a nice change from the usual, for which everyone already has a favorite recipe. I used to be of the opinion that this mixture did not freeze well but I’ve changed my mind – it’s fine. Just be sure to wrap air-tight and freeze in small quantities.

For   about 1 ½ cups, 4 to 6 servings:

1 large clove of garlic, minced fine
3 tbl. freshly grated Parmesan
4 oz. unsalted , shelled roasted pistachios
2 lightly packed cups basil leaves
1/3 to ½ cup light cream ( or ¼ cup whipping cream and some milk)

Put the garlic , cheese and nuts in a food processor and grind until the nut chunks are a bit smaller than those in chunky peanut butter. Add basil, stir to get it under the blades and grind again, freeing the leaves with a knife from time to time, until you have a homogenous paste. Whirr in enough dairy to turn the sauce the consistency of mayo. Salt to taste that’s it.

BLT: Summer in a Sandwich

You have to grow the lettuce in the shade (of the tomato plants, for instance) but other than that, August and September are glory time for one of the greatest food items ever assembled, that lunch of lunches, the BLT.

Can’t really say there’s only one recipe. Say rather there’s only one correct set of components .

One ingredient here is a ringer – can you spot it? Read on.

A Proper BLT:

the Bacon: Local pork. No nitrates. Put slices in a single layer in a heavy cast-iron skillet . Cook slowly, turning often, until most of the fat is rendered and the bacon is well-browned and crisp. Drain. Save fat for cornbread, fried green tomatoes and other baconfat-needy items.

( For a while there I was doing the bacon in the microwave, sandwiching it between unbleached paper towels according to micro directions. It got very crisp and was notably ungreasy, but all that lovely bacon fat was lost and the crispness of the bacon was an oddly dry, industrial crispness reminiscent of fake bacon bits. )

the Lettuce: Preferably from the garden. Crisp but not agribusiness-romaine crisp; it has to play well with others while adding a light, fresh note to the ensemble.

the Tomatoes: Ripe on the edge of falling apart but not falling over it. The ones in the picture are, clockwise from top: Aunt Ruby’s German Green, one of the sweetest heirlooms available; Japanese Trifele, a high-yielding, deep-flavored “black” ; and the unfortunately-named Sophie’s Choice, a new, supposedly early variety trialed this year and not destined for repeat although it tastes pretty good ( plants are small, low-yielding, and not significantly earlier than main crop tomatoes).

the Mayonnaise: Homemade mayonnaise is all very well, but NOT on a BLT, which should be made with Hellmann’s. period. The jar in the picture contains a version made with lime juice for the Latino market and alas not available everywhere. Good though.

And thus we come to the ringer,
the Bread: That’s a ciabatta in the picture and it did make a tasty sandwich, but a naturally-leavened bread full of big holes in the European style is not right for a BLT. What’s wanted is old fashioned Pullman bread, aka pain de mie, the bread that got debased into wonderbread. Properly made, the square, soft-crusted loaf has a very tight, even crumb and just a tiny touch of sweetness to go with the blended flavors of milk and yeasted wheat.

Cool as a Cucumber

supposedly comes from the fact that cucumber skin is cool to the touch, even when the weather is hot – a gift from the fruits’ water content and from the vines’ sheltering leaves. The analogy first shows up in print in 1732, meaning pretty much what it means today.

Not quite that much antiquity for my favorite cucumber, but Boothby’s Blonde does go back a while, too, somewhere around 5 generations in the Boothby family of Livermore, Maine.

a baby Boothby Blonde, spines still too young to color

It’s short and blocky like a pickling cuke, and it does make excellent sweet cucumber pickles ( assuming you like sweet cucumber pickles), but the great thing is that unlike every other cucumber in creation it doesn’t get nasty when it starts to get ripe.

The flesh stays flavorful and crisp even when seeds are well developed, and the seeds themselves are almost sweet in all stages of development. This is useful to know, because like alas all too many vegetables they tend to arrive at the farmers market only when they are way bigger than they should be.

Ideal size is about 4 inches long and a bit more than an inch in diameter, at which stage the skin is white to very pale primrose and the black spines are barely there. Boothbys you see at the market tend to be more like 6×2, with golden skin ( and bumps where the spines were, the spines having been rubbed off). Of course, that’s only insofar as you see them at all, they’re one of those heirlooms that’s poised on the brink but hasn’t yet become a marketing clichaé.

In addition to their other merits, they’re madly prolific, and reasonably quick to bear – about 60 days from seed to first bite. That means it’s a bit late to start a fall crop in the Northeast, but if you garden in a sheltered spot, or anywhere south of New Jersey; there’s still time to give ’em a try.

Lots of specialty seed companies carry Boothby’s Blonde, but why not buy from the outfit that has done so much to keep heirlooms alive: Seed Savers Exchange.