For heat-loving Basil, ’tis the season!

July 31st, 2013


With a long “canicule” heat wave hanging over us, the moment for basil is clearly here.  The glossy green leaves of occimum basilicum are at their pungent best on long summer days – ready to pinch off and scatter over any plate of tomatoes at hand.  The ancient Greeks called this member of the mint family basilikon phuton:  a royal or magnificent herb.  Sweet basil, the large leafed bushy herb is happiest -  its essential oils are most active – in well drained soil, whether in the ground or a large pot in the sun.  But basil’s distinctive fragrance diminishes and lower leaves begin to yellow if it is parched, so a daily dose of water at the base and a little mulch keeps it happily producing more leaves for salads and sauces.  Pinch off  flower buds to use as a seasoning in sauces or as decoration (they are edible!) – to keep the leaves coming.  The basil variety on my window sill, a peppery genovese, has small leaves and a very compact,  round form.


Of the 150 basils available  around the globe, we are tempted by cinnamon or lemon basil, and the purple or dark opal basils that lend their unique tint to vinegars.  In spite of its strong character, basil loses flavor if cooked very long; it is best added in the last five or ten minutes to a sauce or soup as a terminal addition. To boost flavors in a marinade or lend a dressing more punch, tear – don’t chop – basil to avoid blackened edges.  This Mediterannean herb marries flavors with thyme, marjoram, oregano and rocket as companions,  but any combo with dill or tarragon is best avoided.  It has surprised me in recent years to find experiments with drying basil to be a waste of time (if dried it loses oils and essential flavor), so use it fresh….now and ’til the first chilly winds of autumn blow, basil has its time in the sun!

Last call for dill pollen

September 24th, 2010

Dill's last re-seeded crop is up

Fresher morning air, cooler evenings with dusk falling so quickly that  twilight time, entre chien et loup, now  drives us inside by eight o’clock:  autumn is definitely here.  While September’s gloriously sunny days are warm, it is the chilly nights that slow down the herb patch.  Other than a burst of chive spears poking through and promising shoots in the sorrel clump, the basil is tired, the coriander umbrels droop with new seeds.  But the stalwart of the patch is dill that re-seeded in a corner of the potager. The flavor of dill’s fringey leaves seems fuller now that long weeks of heat are past. Last spring I was inspired by a grilled scallop finished with lime juice and dill…(?), and planted more in June.  It was in Minneapolis that I watched a young chef at the Guthrie Theatre restaurant’s oyster bar produce this revelation:  plating a grill-blackened scallop (still raw inside), he dressed it with lime juice and something yellow with the complex fragrance of dill.  What could this yellow dust be?  His whispered response to my question was: dill pollen.  The amount to use is a matter of supply and taste; a seasoning for two is about all of the golden dusting available in any one day.  Wondering where I could get more – thinking ahead to an entrée for four or six, I found both fennel and dill pollen to order from  Prices reflect the products’ delicacy, dill pollen going for $9.75 per half ounce. Their wild fennel pollen runs $10.50 per ounce. A scattering on delicate fish or seafood (or even on new potatoes, beet salad, salmon soup…) so accents the flavors, your taste buds will thank you.  Somehow, a pinch of dill keeps summer on our plates… just a little longer.

Last hours of summer's glory

The first rhubarb – at last !

April 14th, 2010

Pear blossoms, an April pleasure

The gnarly old pear tree – said to be one hundred years old – is a reassuring sign that April is on track.  This year it is laden with blossoms, which will drift onto the flower bed below before summer’s warmer days bring a cover of greenery.  The variety is a hard winter pear to be picked and ripened in the shade during autumn months. But my attention now turns to the ground, to the potager calling to be spaded and prepared for tomato and pepper plants.  These and lettuce sets are already available at the weekly market, so I am running behind.  In April’s chilly mornings and warm afternoons everything shoots and sprouts at once.

New rhubarb and oranges sanguine...

For weeks, I watched the pink rhubarb stems like a hawk, noting more bundles of leaves ready to unfurl and shoot out from the rich soil near our potager compost heap. It had been a cold winter – just the trigger rhubarb needs for energetic production.  One more day of growth in the clump was all it needed before enough could be pulled to cook, enough for a dish or two of rhubarb sauce, whip, or fool.  So, a dish of  rhubarb sauce lightened with a dash of orange zest is in the picture for our first spring supper outdoors.  Having trimmed and cleaned the slim stalks, I chopped them up to measure almost 2 cups.  A cup of water sweetened with a tablespoon of honey and slivers of orange peel – all heated in a saucepan, ready to simmer the rhubarb, covered, for 10 to 12 minutes – was all it took.  Since oranges sanguine (blood oranges) are still available, I squeezed the juice from a quarter of an orange to give color to the sauce.  This is just enough for 2, but if drained and folded into whipped cream (and a sprinkling of shaved, toasted almonds) it could stretch to serve 4.  With almond cookies, of course.  Longer spring evenings invite a walk ’round the garden after supper – to discover more signs of spring.

Earliest wild orchids - in poor, rocky places


October 8th, 2009


We called it a ground cherry, and grew it in the  sandy Minnesota soil of our vegetable garden when I was about ten.  Much more fun to pick than the green beans, the little paper husks could be pinched open to let the glow-in-the-dark orange fruit pop into my mouth.  Mom would make a light syrup and preserve them to perk up winter meals, as a simple sauce for dessert (sometimes over butter-pecan ice cream), or as a special Sunday jam. The ping of jar caps sealing was a sound of the season.  Now, every time the decorative physalis, as festive as a Chinese lantern, is plated on a restaurant dessert tray of chocolate cake or apricot mousse, I recall our harvests just before frost.  Recently I was tickled to find a tray of this globe-trotting native of Peru (Physalis peruviana in botanic terms) on a vendor’s stall in the Rouffignac Sunday market.  Our local Périgord markets seem to offer more interesting ingredients every year, and the physalis’ long season – one hundred days to maturity – is well suited to this temperate growing zone. The sprawling, handsome plant in the Solanaceae family is related to a tomatillo.  So, why not make a sweet physalis salsa to pair with a smooth panna cotta?  Or, why not stir them into an apple crumble for both color and a sweet-sharp edge? Maybe a few will find their way onto a cheese platter, but to be honest….they are so good just popped out of the husk, savored on the spot. Maybe it’s time to think about a physalis row in next year’s potager.

Planning a potager for 2010? See for more on planting them at home – as local as your own back yard.

Floralies, plant shopping heaven

May 29th, 2009

Vagabond Gourmand, image of poppy

Fête des Plantes, Floralies, Foire aux Fleurs…anywhere in France during May and June, plant-shoppers flock to their favorite plant specialists’ stalls to bring color back home.  In fact, color, fragrance, and taste are all to be found  in every Foire aux Fleurs. Vendors gather in a church square, or on the grounds of medieval monasteries to tempt gardeners of all stripes.  Geraniums for your balcony? Maple trees and bushes of great diversity to enhance your slopes or lawns?  A Meyer Lemon tree for the terrace (and pies in good time), bamboos or ferns, perennials or old roses are all to be admired – and bought – in this season’s floralies.

Vagabond Gourmand, photo of poppy

Two of the vagabond’s favorite plant festivals are set against 13th century walls.  In Cadouin, between Bergerac and Sarlat, stalls sprawl across the square of the grey stone abbey church that was once a stopping point for pilgrims on the route to St. Jaques de Compostella. Now, the village May Floralies draws some of the finest plant specialists in  southwest France.  Whether one is searching for a special cyclamen or pots of lavender, a wide variety of greenery and related wares tempt gardeners.  How many new kinds of peppers can you find for the potager?  The vagabond succumbs to enticing piments et aromatiques each year at the Cadouin fair.

At L’Abbaye – Nouvelle, a 13th century Cistercian site in the Lot  south of Gourdon, a Fête des Plantes in May brings together vendors of everything from bonsai to aquatic plants, as well as camelias and jasmins.  Usually held on Sunday, floralies fit into my calendar of special markets, a visual feast as well as  a chance to bring fragrance home….and to watch a new season unfold in the garden.

A note on the Poppy shown above:  the star of the borders this week is Picotee, a robust poppy found at a plant fair three years ago.  Picotee has a different tint or orange sorbet blush every year.  And the seed pods are always left to dry, ready to poke open and sprinkle a few black seeds into yogurt cakes or for an added crunch in a crumb crust for fish.  Any poppy seed recipe ideas are welcome…to include in the Poppy Seed file – comments and tips bienvenue!