Basil to last

This has not been a good year for crops in the Cucurbitaceae family. The squash vine borer wiped out all my zucchini and summer squash plants so for the first time since I started my garden in 2004, I did not have a single zucchini or summer squash. The cucumbers yielded barely enough to make a salad a couple of times, and now the Red Kuri squash plants are one by one succumbing to the squash vine borer as well. Continue reading

Herb-Rub Roasted Chicken, or: celebrating July 4th with local foods

On most days, we eat vegetarian. We have fish once a week at the most, chicken once or twice a month, and beef or other meat on very rare occasions. The few times we do eat meat or poultry, I am ready to dig into my pockets for prime quality, raised organically and locally, because food that is shipped hundreds or thousands of miles across the country is not sustainable even if it is organic. Continue reading

A spoonful of sugar no longer

Pesto Flower bakedIt looks like my childhood heroine Mary Poppins needs to reconsider. No more than six teaspoons added sugar per day for women and nine teaspoons per day for men – that’s what the American Heart Association recommends. Until I read this I thought our added sugar intake was on the moderate side. We do not drink any sodas or soft drinks, nor do we add sugar to tea or coffee. I pay attention to the sugar content when I buy cereal and other processed foods. We do not eat candy and a piece of chocolate only once in a blue moon. Most of the baked goods and sweets we eat are homemade, and I reduce the sugar amount in any given recipe by at least one-third. Still, I concluded that we still eat much more sugar than we should. Continue reading

Pesto outlet

Pesto knotsOnce in a while even resolved home cooks like me agree to take-out pizza. With it we usually order a serving of garlic knots sitting in a puddle of very garlicky garlic oil. Seeing the ample, almost untouched amount of pesto in the freezer a few weeks ago made me feel almost guilty about eating garlic knots from somewhere else so I thought of ways to combine the two: pesto knots.

When it comes to pesto, I am a minimalist. I only use homegrown basil and garlic, salt, a good extra-virgin olive oil, and roasted walnuts. No pine nuts because the real, good kind from Lebanon is very expensive, and I find the Chinese pine nuts inedible. And no Pecorino or other cheese because I prefer to add it to the dish right at the table.

Immediately after processing the pesto, I fill it in small disposable paper cups and place them in the freezer until they are solidly frozen. I then remove the cups and tightly pack those pesto lollipops (lollipops without sticks, that is) in a large zippered freezer bag.

The yeasted knots are fun to make, and both times I made them we did not have trouble finishing them within a day or two (they can also be reheated in the oven).

Now that I have averted the danger of having to spread pesto on our breakfast toast in June to use up last year’s supply, I am starting to wonder whether this year my basil plants might get hit by basil downy mildew, a new highly destructive and quickly spreading disease. In gardening, everything is possible. Meanwhile, I will eat another pesto knot and enjoy it.

Pesto Knots

1¼ cups warm water

2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

3½ cups flour (whole wheat or half whole wheat and half bread flour)

½ cup pesto

Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

1. Mix the water with the yeast and let stand for a few minutes until it starts to foam.

2. In a large bowl mix the olive oil, salt, flour, and the yeast mixture. Knead to a smooth dough using your hands or the dough hook of an electric mixer. The dough should be slightly tacky; add more water a teaspoon at a time as needed.

3. Cover and let rise for 2 hours.

4. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. If you have a baking stone, place it on the medium rack of the oven.

5. Briefly knead dough for remove any air bubbles. Divide it into 24 equally sized pieces using a sharp knife or a dough cutter. Roll each piece into a 6-inch rope of even thickness and twist it into a knot. If the dough starts to feel a bit dry, moisten your hands before shaping each knot.

6. Place the knots directly on the hot baking stone, or on a baking sheet, about 2 inches apart. After placing them in the oven spray them immediately with cold water. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the knots are golden brown.

7. In the meantime mix the pesto with a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Immediately when they come out of the oven, toss the knots with the pesto to coat them evenly.

8. Place the coated knots on a large plate or baking sheet in one single layer. If you pile them up hot as they are they will sweat and get soggy. Eat warm, or reheat in a preheated oven for 350 degrees for a few minutes.

Makes 24 pieces

Basil jungle

This year I overplanted the basil. I gave away lavish bouquets of Genovese and purple basil, made large batches of pesto, and froze basil leaves using Margaret Roach’s ingenious “log technique”, (which of course works great for other leafy herbs as well) yet it just kept growing and my basil patch still looked almost untouched.

I eventually cut down all the basil before the onset of cold weather. After stripping the leaves off the stems, I washed and spun them dry in the salad spinner, and spread them out on trays lined with kitchen towels. After the leaves were completely dried and brittle I crumbled them finely. The mix of green and purple looks especially nice. However the crumbling process created quite a bit of “basil dust” that made me gasp for air so I am seriously thinking of wearing one of those disposable air filter masks next time.

A basil jungle is not such as bad thing after all. Now I have a jar of dried basil that I am portioning into pouches to send as little favors to friends and family who did not get to taste fresh basil from my garden this summer.

Revisiting an old recipe

Looking at the abundance of green and opal basil in my garden today I remembered a cold basil cream sauce I used to make when I was a student. It was a quick and inexpensive dish (in Germany, unlike in the US, crème fraîche can be found in every supermarket, and it’s cheap). Yet the sauce tasted like gourmet food compared to the frozen pizza and other stuff on which I mostly survived.

I usually had it cold with warm pasta but it also goes well on a pasta salad, or can be served with slices of cold meat.

This is the first year I am growing opal basil so I used that but green is fine. Since I have so much of it, and it makes the sauce less rich, I use a full cup of packed basil leaves.

Cold Basil Cream Sauce

Crème fraîche is so pricey and hard to find in this country that I make my own (courtesy of Julia Child, The Way to Cook).

¾ cup heavy cream

¾ cup sour cream (low-fat or regular)

1 cup packed basil leaves, green or opal

¼ cup (1 ounce) freshly grated Parmesan

Freshly ground white pepper


10 ounces farfalle or other pasta

1. Whisk the heavy cream with the sour cream in a small container. Cover and let stand on the kitchen counter away from sunlight for 1 to 2 hours until it thickens.

2. Process the basil leaves with the crème fraîche in a food processor until the basil is finely chopped. Stir in the Parmesan and season with salt and pepper. Do not over-process, or the cream will separate. Refrigerate (the sauce thickens a bit as it stands).

3. Cook the pasta and run plenty of cold water over it to remove the starch. Drain well. Serve the warm pasta with the cold sauce. Or, for a pasta salad, let the pasta almost cool, then toss with the sauce until evenly coated, and refrigerate until serving.

Makes 4 servings

Memory lane

The herb garden is one of my favorite places to work – not only because of all the wonderful scents I take in, but also because every herb has its own story. As I move from plant to plant weeding and trimming, I think of the people who gave them to me, or the circumstances how, when and where I acquired them.

The chocolate mint is the oldest plant in the group. It actually started the herb garden. A red Japanese maple had just died the winter before and we did not quite know what to do with that sunbaked weed-filled area above a stonewall. I planted a lonely mint because I did not know what else to do – I was just getting into gardening at the time. When the mint thrived (of course it did, all mints do!) I was thrilled. It was pretty the way it grew over the wall so I made it a project to turn the whole area into an herb garden.

Today the herb garden is filled with more than two dozen culinary and medicinal herbs. Of course, like with everything else in gardening, there were several failures. Basil, dill, borage and parsley fall victim to the rabbits in a single night, therefore I must grow them in the fenced-in vegetable garden. Our hilltop winters are too rough for rosemary and lavender so those are in containers on the patio and overwinter in the house.

This morning, I was out in the herb garden early to make room for some herbs I bought at the Pennsylvania Lavender Festival yesterday. I was never a big shopper; shoe-buying sprees, for example, are totally strange to me (with shoe size of 11, I don’t want to attract too much attention to my feet anyway) but I can get a bit out of control when it comes to kitchen tools and plants. Therefore I had asked my friend to put me on a leash and not let me buy more than five plants. I stuck to it and came home with two culinary sages, rue, St. John’s worth, and winter savory. If they make it through the winter, they will not only be beautiful additions to the herb garden, but also bring back memories of a great early summer outing.

Lemon Balm Granita

1 cup packed lemon balm leaves (about 1.5 ounces)

3 cups boiling water

Sugar to taste

Dash of lemon juice

1. Wash the lemon balm leaves. Rip them apart with your hands or chop coarsely and place in a heatproof bowl or teapot.

2. Add the boiling water and let steep 30 minutes. Squeeze the leaves to extract as much liquid as possible from the infusion. Sweeten to taste and stir to dissolve the sugar completely.

3. Fill an ice-cube tray and freeze. Refrigerate the rest of the infusion until chilled.

4. Put the ice-cubes and the infusion in a blender with a dash of lemon juice. Crush to a slush and serve immediately.

Makes 2 servings