Saturday, April 14, 2012

Herbs and Happenings

 We're not quite past the danger of frost here in Buffland, but if you have a safe, sunny spot, you could still start some herbs now, for planting outdoors soon.  I know, the perfect way is to bag the little darlings and keep them in the moist dark till they sprout, but that has never worked for me-- I prefer to sow my seeds or bought seedlings straight into soil, with plenty of sun to help them get a move on. Whether outside or in the pot, they still germinate; it just takes longer.

 An herb I adore, that's fairly easy to grow, is Lemon Basil. The fragrance alone is worth the cost of the seed packet, and the taste blows ordinary anise-y Basil away. Cinnamon Basil is a spicier, earthier version, and its grows just as easily for most people. It's intriguing added to sweet dishes or baked goods. I've had some trouble with it, but also some success. I've never had much luck with Holy Basils, but there's no reason not to keep trying.

 When you have a plethora of Basils to use, your pesto will be transcendent, even if you use almonds or walnuts in place of the costly, if ethereal, pine nuts. Having outrageously great basil does give incentive for spending the bucks on pignoli, though. What better excuse? And it's good with or without cheese, so perfect for non-dairy people. Toasted hazelnuts make a pesto so rich and scented, cheese is beside the point. It's the easiest thing in the world to make, with or without a food processor-- just good olive oil, fresh garlic, herbs, nuts, and cheese or a little salt. Of course, there are always possible add-ins, as the link above shows. But you can't make it better, than making it with homegrown herbs.

 I've seen some "lowfat" recipes that use water or less oil, but this is due to a misunderstanding of how to properly use pesto in the first place. You don't use it straight with pasta, piling it on and on till you can actually taste it. The proper way, which also uses less and is therefore less caloric (not that I would care!) is to keep back a cup of your pasta cooking water, add a small amount of pesto, toss, and add a little water at a time, preferably over a still-warm burner. This emulsifies the pesto, helping to make it a creamy sauce, and the starch in the water also helps the sauce cling to and coat each piece of pasta more thoroughly.

 That is why you never rinse pasta unless you are using it for a cold salad, where the starch would just stiffen on the pasta as it cools, preventing the dressing that is applied later from coating it well. The pasta water trick is well-known, but most people not raised to it ignore it, and so never get their pasta to taste as good as it does at their favorite restaurant. It's not a secret ingredient folks, it's just the average, brilliant, wonderful Italian fusion of science and art: pasta water, added at the right time, or not.

 Do it in small increments, add more pesto as you want after the sauce has blended itself with the water. And try this with every other sauce you use on pasta. With red sauce, people can add more at the table, to suit their tastes.

Getting back to the plants, you might want to grow some parsley, too. It's one of the cheaper herbs to buy, usually, but having it fresh at home, all the time, turns a minor luxury ingredient into a standby item you'll use everyday. And it helps freshen up the pesto when your basil slows down. It's supposed to be an annual, but if you plant it straight into the garden, it may surprise you and come back, if you don't pull out the very edible root-- once I even had it come back after a two year absence!

 That was when I had a handerchief herb garden right outside my kitchen door in Indianapolis, with parsley, oregano, and sometimes garlic and dill. Other herbs didn't get enough sun there to make them happy, but having parsley, curly or flat, growing within three feet of my stove was a joy and a help.

 In Buffland, in Spring 2012, I'm going to plant small, in containers and one biiiiiggg ceramic planter: some herbs, tomatoes bought as seedlings from a local nursery, and a few lettuces, with maybe some sunflowers across from my kitchen office, where they'll soak up plenty of rays, and no doubt give the squirrels an easy meal. What will you grow this year? How much garden space do you have? Any, lots, none? Is there a community garden nearby you can work with? Enquiring mind wants to know.

 Speaking of community gardens, Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo will have an exhibit at the Sixth Annual Enviro-Fair, at Buffalo's City Hall on Friday the 20th, just before Earth Day. There'll be other exhibits as well, and admission is free. If you want to learn how to get involved with, or set-up, a big garden to share with neighbors, why not check it out? Here's a link.  Buffalo Riverkeepers, Jamba Juice, ReTree WNY, Habitat for Humanity, The Fresh Air Fund, and many other will be exhibiting at this celebration of Earth and Ecology. You may see me there also-- I'll be the one with the flowering tree painted on my face.

 Some other great gardening ideas, and ideals, can be found here, at Anthony Anderson's site. I recommend checking out everything written there about the Food Forest concept.

    Peace, Mari


  1. we grew basil on our windowsill last year, had a brilliant harvest! Thanks for the advice about pesto!

  2. You're welcome. I hope you have a brilliant harvest this year too, whatever seeds you plant.