I spent the summer between high school and college working as a maintenance man at a girls’ summer camp in Wisconsin. I was known as “Mr. Pete” and I shared the duties with a college student known as “Mr. Tim.” The camp operated under very strict rules and Mr. Tim and I resided in an old farmhouse on the outskirts of the camp, segregated from the young campers. The counselors were all older college girls and often during their downtime, they would visit our farmhouse to secretly drink beer. The summer’s paycheck was minimal but the ratio of 12 female counselors to 2 maintenance men made the job more attractive. At the end of the camping season I was offered the same position for the following summer, which I eagerly accepted.
Midway through my freshman year in college I met my wife-to-be Julianne and we spent our spring break at her family’s farm to announce our engagement. During our visit I had the opportunity to help my fiancée’s grandfather plant potatoes and onion sets and tend the hot beds that were growing pepper and tomato seedlings. While being properly vetted by Papa, Julianne’s grandfather, I was asked about my plans for the upcoming summer. As I enthusiastically described my job at the girls’ summer camp he raised his eyebrows and asked “What will they be paying you?” “Only $300, but the fringe benefits are great!” I joked. He frowned and said “Why don’t you stay with us and farm with me this summer? I promise you will make a lot more than $300.” Realizing where this conversation was heading, I said “Sure. Why not?” and felt a pang of disappointment that I would never again enjoy the late night farmhouse visits from the camp counselors.
That spring Julianne’s parents gave us their old blue Chevy Impala which allowed us to drive home from Champaign to Springfield on weekends to help with the planting. Often, when the weather was mild and beautiful, several of Papa’s Italian-American friends would show up to help with the planting. They all drove big Lincoln Continentals, wore short-brimmed straw hats and had thin pencil mustaches. Whenever I was around they switched to speaking Italian, which made me wonder if they were Mafia. I rarely saw them help with the weeding during the hot, muggy days of summer, but they returned during the cooler days of early fall to help pick peppers.
One day the guy I presumed to be the Godfather stopped by with a gallon jug of homemade wine. “This is organic wine made without any sugar!” One sip of the vinegary fermented grape juice confirmed this. “I drink a glass of this every morning with a raw egg!” he stated. He spied the row of a leafy green herb we had planted that spring and picked a sprig. “Ah! Basanagol!” (He pronounced it baa-zaa-naa-GOAL.) “When I was a young man, courting the signorinas, I would put a sprig of basanagol behind my ear. It made them want to kiss me!” So that summer, whenever Julianne and I would go out on a date, I would stick some basanagol behind my ear.
Later I discovered that basanagol is what we call sweet basil and it remains to this day my favorite herb. Basil grows abundantly in the summer, especially if you remember to pinch out the flower heads as soon as they appear to make sure that the leaves continue growing. Basil is not resistant to the cold, so when temperatures drop, you should harvest or move it indoors. I have found that growing a couple basil plants in pots provides enough for my culinary needs and allows me to easily relocate the herbs indoors when weather threatens.
To keep harvested basil fresh, trim the stems and place them in a jar of water, just like cut flowers. Loosely cover it with a plastic bag and leave on the counter. Basil should not be stored in the refrigerator.
My favorite way to enjoy basil is as a garnish for beautiful fresh tomatoes drizzled with a little good olive oil or as an accompaniment for tomatoes and fresh mozzarella slices (Insalate Caprese.) When recipes instruct you to chiffonade basil, simply stack basil leaves on top of each other, gently roll them into a cigar, and then use a sharp knife to slice them into thin ribbons.
Insalate Caprese For 2
- 4 ripe tomatoes, sliced
- 1/2 lb. fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
On a platter, alternate slices of tomato and mozzarella. Garnish generously with basil leaves, tucking some between the tomato and mozzarella slices. Drizzle the olive oil over all, and then sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
I joined a CSA this year (Community Supported Agriculture) and received big bouquets of basil in my market box the last two weeks. The quantity far exceeds what I need for my salads. When life gives you too much basil, make basil pesto!
This makes a delicious versatile sauce for pasta, chicken or fish.
- 2 cups fresh basil leaves (no stems)
- 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
- 2 large cloves garlic or more or less to taste
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino-Romano cheese
Combine basil leaves, pine nuts and garlic in a food processor and process until very finely minced.
With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the oil and process until the mixture is smooth.
Add the cheese and process very briefly, just long enough to combine. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator or freeze in ice cube trays. To prevent it turning from a gorgeous green to an unappetizing brown, flow a thin layer of olive oil atop the pesto before storing.
Contact Peter Glatz at email@example.com.