When I was a child there were some smells that just meant summer: Coppertone sunscreen, the off-gassing of plastic pool tools when you walk into the local Walgreens, the sharp scent of ozone after a four o’clock sun shower. As an adult, nothing smells more to me like summer than fresh basil, and it’s allegedly easy to grow, too. For me, though, basil and, to be honest, most other plants are not so easy to sustain. Over the last several years, and about thirty different plants, I’ve only managed to keep a fern, some philodendron, a shamrock plant, a poinsettia (I don’t know why either), and a blue daze. The blue daze is my favorite. Sshhh… Don’t tell the others.
I wish I was a better gardener. I’ve read about gardening – researched it. I had raised beds one year and grew strawberries and melon and tomatoes, and basil, of course. I even grew the most beautiful cucumber I’ve ever seen. Then the squirrels got to the plants, and the bugs fought past the diatomaceous earth and, well, Autumn was coming anyway. You know, though, I keep trying because, I want to be that person with the green thumb. I want to be one of those great Southern ladies who grows roses and gives away tomatoes and zucchini and honey from her very own beehive and who makes just about the best buttery biscuits to serve with that honey… There’s something just so Earth Mother about it. It feels like something a woman should be able to do – to plant something, watch it grow, and, most importantly, keep it alive. Am I being a genderist? Is that a word?
So after surrendering to the squirrels and bugs, I scaled back and started to just plant herbs. No matter how promising my basil plants begin, though, after my first harvest, they just sort of dwindle away not unlike the summer months that accompany them. I’m always a little sad when they go, when I finally give up the ghost, pluck that shriveled up stem out of the dirt, and dump out that pot of soil in the corner of the yard where I buried the rest of my poor plant children. More and more, I wonder how my human child made it to adulthood, but I digress.
Besides smelling like heaven and sunshine, basil is such a versatile herb. I’m thinking of a basic salad of basil, watermelon, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar or maybe a caprese salad or the crisp crust and gooey cheesiness of a grilled margherita pizza or chicken with basil and sun dried tomatoes or my absolute favorite weeknight dinner that I can whip up in less than 20 minutes and for which I always seem to have the ingredients on hand. I’m not sure where the recipe originated, but I started making it ten years ago when I first flirted with vegetarianism. I threw it together in desperation one night because I was starving and still hadn’t figured out how to feed myself without throwing a steak on it. It’s basically my version of a scaled down primavera, and to this day, it is my favorite comfort food.
You should make it yourself and eat it while you watch one of my favorite movies, “The Constant Gardener” on Netflix before it goes away at the end of the month. The movie’s named for the character played by Ralph Fiennes, who actually is quite a competent gardener in the movie, both of plants and of people. He’s such a great actor, isn’t he?
I’ve never actually named this dish, and though you could load it up with all the veggies in your garden that are fit to eat, I keep it basic: tomato, garlic, basil. It’s light and, paired with a nice Sauvignon Blanc, will offset the heaviness of this movie that tells a story of those people out there who will fight for what’s right and for love no matter the cost. Anyway, just like my constant efforts at growing my own basil, not to mention those various and sundry other living things I’ve attempted to grow, both the dish and the movie are delicious and well worth trying.
The Constant Gardener’s Pasta
2 servings, angel hair pasta
1 T olive oil
1 C grape tomatoes, halved
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 T butter
¼ C + more for topping Parmesan cheese, grated
Crushed red pepper, to taste
Handful of torn basil
PREPARE the pasta as directed. Reserve about 1/8 cup of the pasta water when you drain and rinse the pasta.While the pasta is cooking..
HALVE the tomatoes, slice the garlic, and wash and pat dry the basil.
HEAT the olive oil in a deep-sided sauté pan, or if you’re not too fancy, just use the now empty pasta pot.
SAUTE the tomatoes and garlic for no more than three minutes and then add the quarter cup of reserved pasta water and the butter. If you like saucier pasta, now’s the time to add a splash of that white wine you’re drinking.
STIR the pasta into the melted butter.
STIR in Parmesan cheese and, if you like it a little spicy, crushed red pepper.
TOP with fresh basil and more Parmesan cheese.