what to do with a glut
I once had a dream I owned a small pit bull I neglected to care for, until one day it grew so ravenous it began to eat a baseball glove. Why I owned this baseball glove, I cannot tell you, but the puppy: this is how I imagine the herbs growing on my porch to feel, thirsty, dry, and brown as their pots.
The buxom planters of Genovese basil above are not my own. They belong to a woman of resolute character, perhaps an old Italian widow with enviable palms, strong and callused from making picis by hand and pesto with her mezzaluna. She is the only inhabitant of Toiano alle Brota, an ancient castle settlement in the centre of the Valdera region of Tuscany, where I cooked briefly last summer. And despite–or perhaps because of–her isolation, she tends to her basil plants better than I do a fictional puppy in a fever dream.
Toiano is referred to as the "ghost village," which captures the eery solitude of a place populated by only single soul, and a graveyard of those whose came before. These pots of herbs marked the only sign of life in Toiano; not because they were growing, but because they were nurtured.
A Jungian analysis tells me my anxiety as a caretaker runs deeper than pets, or herbs, for that matter, but you have to start somewhere. I can't seem to get past the seedling part before death takes its grip and green languishes to brown. Perhaps terracotta is the symbol for my negligence and vanity as a twenty-something. I've heard this affliction is called having a "black thumb,” a title which belie my intentions and ambitions. Ironically, I do have black thumbs now. Grit has started to collect in the small fissures of dry skin on my fingertips from opening the sharp lids of plastic deli containers at the restaurant where I work. These changes have become small validations of myself as one who cooks professionally, not one who gardens. And hopefully, as one who feeds others.
Back at the villa, we had Paolo, whose green thumbs we relied on to grow what felt like only three plants that summer: tomatoes, cucumber, and zucchini. In retrospect, this lack of variety was the measure of a typical Italian summer's bounty, not his talents, of which he had many: I once found him in the kitchen, hovered over an antique alembic still, distilling mint for its essential oil.
As cooks, it was our responsibility to seed these fruits of his labor into our menu without it appearing repetitive. Italians are not shy of uses for the tomato, or the summer squash, for that matter. But cucumbers, singularly raw in most cuisines (save for Asian) were the challenge. Lorenzo, our chef, first introduced me to the technique of making Andalusian-style gazpachos. He was tall, dark, and handsome in a way that belied his age, until a charming awkwardness eventually gave it away. He would marry these vegetables, cucumber as the universal base, with herbs and vinegar, purée them, then thicken & fortify the whole mess with stale soaked bread and olive oil. It was a refreshing alternative to the chunky, jalapeno-spiked version I had made back at home, and a tonic for hundred-degree days.
Though of Catalan origin, these cold soups come in shades of red, white, and green like the Italian flag. Most often we would take tomatoes unfit for insalta, usually the ones that were overripe, bruised, or leftover from that afternoon's lunch of caprese salad, and reconstitute them into a red version for antipasti that evening. Italians are genius illusionists. Lorenzo also shared a technique he learned from cooking in Uruguay for ajo blanco, a white gazpacho. When paired with almonds, garlic, bread, basil, and red wine vinegar, it liberated other prolific fruits of summer from the garden, like cantaloupes, crenshaws, and watermelons.
I try my best to keep up with summer; to do justice to the work of the farmers and gardeners in my community. But still, thanks to my CSA box, I end up with more greens than is nutritionally necessary. I’ve also picked up a habit of stopping every block or so around to identify plants that look particularly useful. I’m not sure where line between foraging and thievery lies (does a self-proclaimed community herb garden invite harvesting?), but if mint starts to grow its leaves wide and flower, I can't help but rescue it like outstretched hands waiting to be grasped.
Herbs are a bit like a capricious lovers in that they can be handled both tender and rough, something I hadn’t considered until various personalities started to make their way into my home with great frequency: bitter lemon balm, delicate basil and spunky dill, exotic shiso and common parsley. So I've turned to various purées to reduce their magnitude without reducing their flavor. The time for using greens with great vigor is now, as in, summer: when herbs are lush and overflowing from windowsills, patios, neighborhood gardens, and market stalls. Pulverizing them is nothing short of sacrilege in colder weather, when gardens in Chicago lie dormant and herbs hang limply from shelves at the grocery store, preciously tucked away in expensive plastic cartons.
To have a glut of herbs, then, is both a privilege and a burden, depending on your ingenuity. Friends have told me they avoid purchasing them altogether, as a bunch can turn browns and mushy if not properly stored. What to do with a glut they ask, and to this I respond: use more herbs. Put them in every dish you make. Use them with abandon, and then restraint, as you limit yourself to working with a single variety before moving on. Then, when all else wilts, make gazpacho.