Good Seed: Basil

I’ve learned to say zee instead of zed for the last letter of the alphabet. I don’t say leftentant any more, I say lootenant. It took me awhile to call Karkees Kakees. (Khakis.) The one Canadian shibboleth I can’t shake is pronouncing the word for that lovely herb Bayzil. It will always be Bazzle for me, as in Basil Faulty. But all this etymological chat is just me yammering on — let’s talk about the herb.

I can’t remember the first time I tasted basil. It wasn’t as a young woman travelling  in Tuscany in February, for sure. I didn’t miss it — all the trattorias and bars stocked luscious poached pears with chocolate sauce, served warm. It wasn’t in the Quebec of my childhood: the herbal profile was Old French: summer savory, thyme, clove, nutmeg. In some Fellini time warp I found basil at the same year Marcella Hazan’s seminal Italian cookbook was published, which was close to the time  we moved to the “Ville and I planted my first garden. I’ve talked about how I love to spill seed into the ground — flowers, vegetables, and herbs, and I’m still astonished that basil is so darned easy to grow.

My husband’s paternal grandparents, operatic cooks and gardeners, didn’t grow basil — and his Nonna’s family hailed for Porta San Pietro, a suburb of Naples! I remember Nonna having a shake jar of dried basil in the pantry, next to the oregano she preferred, but she and Nonno never grew or bought fresh basilico. I’m going to lose some foodie cred here: although fresh basil is best, dried basil should never be despised.

Gardening here in Chicagoland is tough, especially if you, like me, love the economy and charm of a package of seeds, rather than bankruptcy at the Garden Center. Deep freezes, snow , and root buckling in the winter, a late spring, and a long hot summer that can be either rainy and tropical, like this year, or blistering and dry. Oh, the Augusts I’ve scoured the soles of my feet on the frizzled Astroturf of our lawn during a dry spell.( This year the lawn should be mowed every other day.) But no matter what the weather gods bring, basil grows from seed in these parts.

I always buy one basil plant from the nursery in the drunken besotted state of a Midwestern gardener in May. Among the chives, tarragon and weeds you can see the original Big Basil plant  here, and Willow’s fans can see her paws in the upper right hand corner.

I think I paid three bucks for it, and it provided that sweet, minty, summery lift I needed when every other herb was either sulking or nonexistent. But when I bought it, I spent a buck on a package of seeds, planted them in pots, and strewed them about in the beds. For you Californians, Georgians or Virginians who are probably scratching your heads about my excitement — you don’t understand. A swell herb that sprouts from every single seed? Impossible, but true.

Three planters:

Yes, there a couple of pears in those pots. Oy, the Asian Pear tree from hell is dropping fruit and attracting wasps earlier than usual — but that’s another story entirely. The branches look pretty:

I’m doing something with slices of eggplant (deep fried) ragu, pattypan squash and cheese for dinner tonight. Strewed inside and out with the cheapest and cheeriest  product of a seed pack I know. Maybe I’ll avoid the irritating pronunciation divide of the great English speaking nations and call it basilico.



Filed under About a buck, Free

4 responses to “Good Seed: Basil

  1. “. . . in the drunken besotted state of a Midwestern gardener in May.” How very apt. May I borrow it?

    I love the stuff, and I love that you love it in all its humble self. I, too, with thousands of miles to separate our learning of the word, say Bazzle. Of course, mine was learnt when good Mr. Fawlty was but a twinkle, etc., for my pronunciation came from his even more estimable countryman, the incomparable Sherlock Holmes.

    That was HIS name, and that was the way it was said. It’s too late to change. I encountered it late as a fresh green leaf, and we grow it in sheaves and shrubs over here, from nipping tender leaves from their stems for a fresh, perfect Caprese, to wrenching great handfuls for chiffonade to mix with more of those tomatoes and olive oil and PR, to make a rustic, half-raw sauce for angel hair or linguini—the most exquisite dish of pasta there is.

    Just the breath from that bowl, as the hot pasta hits the lukewarm vegetables and cheese—the best appetizer in the house.

    Do tell on the eggplant/squash/cheese dish, please.

  2. Bill S

    Two things you need to know: (1) It doesn’t matter which way you say it. (2) It doesn’t matter which way you say it, you cannot live without basil, no matter how cheap. My two favorite ways are: Sprinkled over sliced tomatoes with capers, gorgonzola, and balsamic vinegar; and top your favorite mac and cheese with sliced tomatoes instead of bread crumbs and, of course, top that with fresh or dried basil prior to baking it.

    And, speaking of farmer’s markets, as you did recently, basil is the one that makes you notice. That bucket of fresh basil will absolutely reach out and grab you with its wonderful fresh scent. It is hard to walk past without getting some. One only hopes that there is still some available when the tomatoes ripen.

  3. sparrowgrass

    I, too, have ba(y)sil in pots. I don’t cook much in the summer–too busy exercising my sore knee in the pool and mowing the lawn for that–so some of the pots will be coming inside for winter meals.

    I got lucky when I found this house–I have a big sunroom with a southern exposure, so I think herbs will do fine in the front window. I start all my plants there in the late winter, so I have a shelf with florescent lights. (How do you spell florescent?–that does not look right.)

    I recently discovered Thai cooking–love that basil and cilantro in soups and curries.

  4. Alex

    Similar to what you made last night, fresh bayz’l (hey, I’m from N’yawk), added at the last minute, takes a ratatouille to the next level. We’re growing three varieties in our windowbox this year, along with sage and rosemary. I try to have some remaining at the end of the season so I can make a bunch of pesto (sans cheese) and freeze it in ice cube trays.

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