Tuesday, July 2, 2013

CSA Cooking: one bunch of fresh basil


I arrived at the CSA pickup today after work to the welcome realization that this week's share included fresh basil.  Also new baby turnips and a giant napa cabbage.  I took up my bunch of basil, rubber banded around the stem – the rubber band providing pressure to bruise the stem, breaking just enough cell walls to release the aromatics of basil without compromising its structure.  The lady behind me walked around me to continue down the line of vegetable offerings while I stood there with my nose buried in the basil like it was a bouquet offering from my beloved. 

The sense of smell is so powerful, scent carries sense beyond the smell itself.  Campfire smoke, the smell of rain on dry earth, cookies baking, the unique scent of a loved one.  Each carries with it and evokes its own matrix of memory.

A noseful of fresh basil is long summer afternoons, is summer time gloamings below a spreading maple.  It is the most richly velvety satisfying taste sense mouthfeel in the world.  It is the transcendence of a sunripe still warm heirloom tomato, eaten in careful bites, each bite slathered in pesto.  It is the promise of summer sun shining green on a winter plate.  It is fresh and pungent, bright and deep.  Dried basil is a beautiful underpinning for almost any saut√©, stew or soup.  Cooked basil adds piquancy to thai and Italian dishes alike.  But fresh basil is simply sublime.

I stuck my nose in that bouquet of basil and I knew just what I was making for dinner.  I had to go by the grocery store anyway for milk and trashbags I'd neglected to replenish the last time, as well as (always!) for cereal.  And so I stalked the vegetable section, noticing myself first bypassing it joyfully.  In winter I spend most of my grocery shop in the vegetable section, but in summer my table overflows with so fresh so local greens I rarely buy anything except for a special occasion.  This qualified.  I found the tomatoes, and settled upon a plastic clamshell (I know! I know! The unsustainable plastic waste! But really, there are times when bruised tomoatoes or pink-pretending-to-be-red tomatoes just won't do) of on-the-vine beautiful little round red tomatoes.  I brought them home.

I boiled water, salted it, and added pasta.  I poured a bunch of olive oil into a cast iron skillet.  This is not the time for sparing use of olive oil, testing to see how little you can get away with to coat your greens.  This is a time for covering the bottom of a large pan in an eighth inch or more of oil.  So much that you pause for a moment, thinking you've poured too much, it’s a waste, it'll ruin the dish.  It isn't, it won't.  I chopped a large clove of garlic and set it to simmering in the oil.  Washed the tomatoes, finely chopped the basil (stems and all – I certainly was not going to was any of the aromatics) and set it aside.  Then I quartered the tomatoes, placing them in the oil, where they sizzled and threw drops of hot oil out of the pan when their inner juices came in contact.  As all the tomatoes found their way in the skillet, they settled down and began to mull in the oil.  The goal for the tomatoes is the point where they start to go soft, are warm through, the skin just beginning to peel off the edges of the slices. Salt and pepper. About half way there, I added a handful of pine nuts (the last of the bag that has been in my freezer and then in my fridge for probably a few years now, I use them sparingly, but adore them when I do).  As the tomatoes warm and sweat, the juices mix with the oil to creat a light, beautiful, flavor not-quite-sauce.  Fortuitously, my pasta and tomatoes were ready at the same moment.  This is the sort of confluence that I don't plan anymore, I just intuit.  Below my brains understanding of cooking time, in minutes or the distance from a simmer to a boil, my heart knows the rhythm of the kitchen and I find myself puttering around until just the moment when, like today, the tomatoes ought to begin for them to finish at the same moment as the pasta.  If you don't have this pulse yet, not to worry.  One or the other can always be taken off the heat.  I scooped the pasta into the skillet, letting each scoop drain of excess water as it hung in the hair above the pot.  Then turned off the heat and mixed the pasta with the tomatoes, pine nuts, and the lovely sauciness in the pan.  The last step is to mix in the chopped basil, letting the warmth of the pasta begin to wilt it, releasing its oils to our tastebuds, but retaining that fresh beautiful incomparable flavor. 

Served under a scattering of parmesean cheese with chianti on the porch in the rain clean air, there was no time to take a picture.

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