It’s an obsessiveness that sprang like tenacious chives in the spring, but every single summer of my adult life thus far I plant as many pots of basil as I can possibly support on my patch of NYC land. And then… I don’t pick it. Or much of it.
I have visions of piles of pesto and basil mayo and basil butter and umpteen other wonderful basil-boosted bits of culinary wonder, but the most I allow myself to mete out is a leaf in some sauce here, a bit of chiffonade garnish there, frustratingly similar to the way my mother-in-law used to save her good pajamas for the hospital (if you grew up Italian, I know you know what I’m talking about), I hoard it. For, you know, a special occasion.
So it grows and grows until the little tops pop with spiked and poofy little seeded heads, the taste of the leaves turns from summer sweet to long-in-the-tooth pungent, and some yet-to-be-determined unknown aphid munches on half of it. But not 2013. My U-Pick! motto for the summer has had me plucking piles of the stuff when sweet and young. I’ve pulsed up pesto for quick, impromptu, last-minute dinners after a late return from a weekend away, frozen containers of it for winter, and mixed up other myriad concoctions for an herb happy summer like I’ve never had before. And (surprise!), silly fool, as long as you keep those seedy heads under control, if you pick it, it will come back — nice and healthy and green and delicious until not-so-laborious Labor Day, when you can let ’em ride and, perhaps, keep the seeds for next year’s pots (I have yet to do this; my thumb is chartreuse at best — but I’m learning). It’s been a good leaf to turn over.
Last weekend, a good friend I visited out on eastern Long Island had a great treat in his garden — lemon basil. When my husband and I arrived late for dinner Saturday night, he cried, “Zavatto, make me cocktail!” — a not-so punishing punishment, as I was in the mood for one myself. On his counter, was a high pile of plants snapped at their lower stalks, their green leaves demurely lounging all come-hither like the herbaceous harem they were.
I pulled a leaf, rubbed it between my fingers and smelled — the bright, lemony, fresh, sweet smell of lemon basil was all-too-proper inspiration. As it so happened, he had a bottle of homemade ginger simple syrup another friend had made the weekend before (apparently, cocktail demands are not unusual), so I muddled up a few leaves with a little of the syrup, grabbed a bottle of Espolon reposado tequila that sat conveniently close to where I was set up and poured it in, added a good dousing of fresh lime juice, a little bit of extra ginger syrup, shook well, and voila. A basil-based cocktail that was so darned basily good, if I do say so myself, we wound up making a second round before dinner. Its name: Basil Hoarder.
5 -6 leaves lemon basil
.5 oz. ginger syrup
1.5 oz. fresh lime juice (keep the rinds)
3 oz. resposado tequila
Muddle the basil with a few drops of the ginger syrup in a Boston shaker. Add in ice. Pour in the rest of the syrup, lime juice, and tequila. Shake oh-so well. Fill two low-ball glasses half with ice and strain in concoction, opening the top at the last minute. Garnish with fresh lemon basil and a lime.