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Archive for Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Basil, tomatoes an aromatic, flavorful mix

June 27, 2007

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Summer has settled in. Even without consulting a calendar, I know it is late June because of the buzz at my ear every time I walk to the garden and the way the heat washes across my face and down my neck as I stoop to weed. Preparing to work in the garden now requires a ritual bath in sunscreen and insect repellant.

But the month of June also offers plenty of reasons to forsake the air-conditioning for an hour or two outdoors. In late June the promise of the summer garden is on full display, with squash, cucumbers and beans blossoming and setting their fruit. And some of the green tomatoes have begun to turn.

In fact, it was the tantalizing prospect of Fourth of July tomatoes that led me to the garden Sunday afternoon, when sensible people were indoors. Just as a watched pot won't boil, fruit on a doted-upon tomato plant doesn't ripen any sooner, but I'm there nearly every day to check for bugs and worms, move the growing branches up their cages and pinch a few suckers.

I also paused awhile Sunday afternoon to pull a few weeds and found myself pinching the blossoms on my basil plants. One of the supreme pleasures of the vegetable garden in June is experiencing the freshness and depth of the aromas from the tomato and basil leaves. Even if I never ate tomatoes and basil, they would be worth growing for the scents, which are available only from live plants.

When I load up my purchases at the nursery in the spring, I always set the tomato and basil plants in the same flat so they will rub against each other on the way home, filling my car with an amazing explosion of perfume.

A similar thing happens when I tend the tomato and basil plants in the garden and get the oil from the tomato leaves and basil blossoms on my hands. In the heat of the day, the aroma quickly finds its way to the sweat on my brow and then to my hair and clothing. Believe me, there are worse ways to smell after an afternoon of gardening in the Kansas heat.

The tomato-basil relationship is an interesting one because the two crops are so complementary, but they aren't on the same schedule. While basil has many uses in the kitchen, I use it primarily as pesto or chopped and bruised into a little olive oil. In both bases, I eat it most often with freshly sliced tomatoes.

While pesto can keep for weeks in the refrigerator, we nearly miss the opportunity to combine fresh tomatoes and fresh basil. In many gardens, basil leaves have been pick-able for a couple of weeks, but the tomato harvest won't really begin until early July and will continue into August.

That means that the fresh-basil lovers among us need to keep our basil plants going through the hottest part of the summer so we can continue to harvest basil leaves along with tomatoes. Two strategies will be most effective.

First, continually pinch off the blooms. This will need to be done almost daily to prevent the flavor of the basil from becoming sharper, which happens after the plants go to seed, and to encourage the plants to continue adding leaves.

Second, although basil thrives in hot, dry conditions, water the plants even when they don't appear overly thirsty. During periods without rain, once every 10 days is enough. The theory here is that the watering will slow the flavor change as well as delay the point at which the basil leaves become leathery.

By taking these two steps, you should be able to keep your basil plants happy through the entire tomato season.

- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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