In summer, the bounty of herb plants begins to overtake the beds. The basils that were so tiny in April are now 2 feet high and wide. The feathery bronze fennel, just a seedling last spring, now presents countless umbels of blossoms that are a favorite hangout for butterflies.
Several of my better meals have come together because of the absence of one ingredient or the abundance of another. In fact, many of my best herbal concoctions are born out of some combination of necessity, desperation, and the garden’s bounty. And so it was one day recently when I was expecting special guests.
I had worked all week putting the herb beds in order. The mugwort received its twice-monthly pruning, and I pinched out the bloom shoots of the lemon basils so they’d keep producing their delicious leaves. Cinnamon and opal basils were blooming beautifully, but I didn’t pinch their slender spikes: I’d harvest them later for decoration.
This particular day’s flurry of activity centered around guests who were coming from several hundred miles away to photograph the garden and ask me questions. They were bringing some sort of dignitaries along, and I’d offered to have lunch waiting when they arrived. Flavors from the garden seem to give a better feeling for the garden itself, and they certainly would give us all a nice way of getting acquainted over food.
The appetizer would be my favorite: herbed cheese cubes prepared from farmer’s cheese rolled in minced garlic chives, Italian parsley, and sweet marjoram in olive oil, then marinated overnight. I’d serve the cubes on a giant basil leaf with homemade crackers and follow them with a salad of mesclun greens dressed with my raspberry vinegar.
The light main course would be chicken breasts simmered with morel mushrooms, garlic greens, and white wine, then topped with freshly-ground parmesan cheese. I like to fix this dish because it’s so quick; I can serve it hot just as guests finish their salads.
Dessert would be . . . I drew a blank. Everything was ready and under way, or about to be, the guests would be arriving in minutes, and I didn’t have a thing in the house that resembled a dessert. Sometimes I keep candied chocolate mint leaves and serve those as after-dinner mints, but there were none in the pantry, nor was there enough time to prepare more.
The day before, I had picked blackberries and processed them into frozen juice. There was nearly a quart of cooked, strained juice left over in the refrigerator. As I stood at the kitchen counter, staring off into space and desperately hoping a key lime pie would float down from the sky, my eyes suddenly focused on a vase of Dark Opal basil left from the previous day’s meal.
“The colors of the basil and blackberry juice match,” I thought. “Does that mean the flavors might?” It was a ray of hope.
I picked off three leaves of the richly ruby-colored basil and put those, along with half of the tart blackberry juice and a quarter cup of honey, into the blender. I pushed the on button and let the machine do its work. In the meantime, I took the sorbet container out of the freezer, where I store it in summer. I was pouring the blended juice into the frozen mixing bowl as the guests pulled into the driveway.
We walked in the garden briefly and visited, and I carried the little hand-cranked mixer. Every few minutes I gave it a twist and turn, knowing that the frozen dessert was at least being made—I was trusting the outcome to fate.
Lunch was a success, the guests were delightful, and the blackberry-basil sorbet was dubbed the star of the meal. “Is that what you were making as we walked in the garden?” one guest asked.
Fresh herbs are fun to experiment with, and the necessity of the moment sometimes yields a pleasant surprise. But whether it does or doesn’t, we learn from it and try again; the possibilities are endless when the herbs are as close as the garden.