Monday, August 10, 2009

City Girl Has a Garden

I do consider myself a city girl. Despite the fact that I spent the first 20 years of my life in small-town Indiana, know what the phrase "Knee high by the Fourth of July" means, and remember when dining out meant either Chili's or Olive Garden... or maybe Steak 'n Shake (and getting there meant 30 minutes driving at 60 mph on country highways.) I have various valuable and marketable skills learned from country life - catching frogs in pails out by the pond, hauling wood, bike riding on country roads with no shoulder for miles (alone at age 10), and egg collecting from the hen house. Spiders don't scare me. I think the whole concept of 'germs' is a marketing ploy by the antibacterial soap industry. I camp.

But somehow, ever since I was a little kid, I have been inexplicably drawn to the bright lights, the energy, the people, and the excitement of the city. I dreamt of working downtown, amidst skyscrapers, lunching at cafes and meeting exotic people from all over the world. I dreamt of putting on sparkly clothes and going out to the clubs at all hours, rubbing elbows with the fashionable people, people with money and power and a certain attractive je ne se quoi that you just couldn't find amidst the corn fields, chain restaurants, and bible-beating churches of rural Indiana. Eventually, I found myself playing out these dreams in both Chicago and Seattle, proving some dreams and disproving others, until I understood what was real and more importantly who I was against this backdrop, so bright and fast and foreign compared to where I came from. I guess you could say I learned my happy medium. I learned that I was neither one nor the other, but something very in-between.

So here, in this city, I've finally planted a garden. Atop our hill overlooking the skyscrapers of downtown, next to those charming thimbleberries, is a small patch where I have heirloom tomatoes, dinosaur kale, Italian basil, and a mess of oregano and sage as an inheritance from a previous owner's efforts. But please don't assume - I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. My mother has had a garden the size of a large tennis court for years. As an 8-year-old kid I would dig little holes in the ground for the seeds to drop into. When the asparagus popped out of the mulch in early spring, I'd pluck off their plump heads and collect them in a bunch. My favorite was picking strawberries. I liked to pick and collect, but I had really no idea how to grow. When do you plant? Do you start with seed or with seedlings? My mother was no expert, but she did alright, despite her constant reinvention of the wheel.

For the past few years I've wanted to grow my own food. All of my interest in sustainability, organics, and watching my former neighbor grow lush bunches of herbs and squashes in his backyard was all the convincing I needed. I just needed a bit of soil, and this year I finally got it. It doesn't hurt either that our upstairs neighbor is practically a master gardener, and has given me a big bag of compost, bamboo tomato stands, and tips on plant spacing and renewing the soil. This garden is more than just food - it's also a statement about where I am in my life. I've found my perfect home, my mate, and my balance between the two sides of myself. I'm ok with being a girl from Indiana. I'm proud that I know how to bait a hook, build a good campfire, and have respect for the land. I'm also proud that I know how to charm at a cocktail party, know all the hottest restaurants in town... and yes, I own quite a few pairs of clubbing heels. I'm ok with that.

I went out to my tiny garden on Thursday morning and began collecting basil leaves. My own basil! The little plants weren't the sprawling, giant-leafed ones I imagined when I planted them a few months ago. But they were mine, and they were what I needed to teach my Berries class that evening. I taught the students how to make a basil-strawberry pesto, and it tasted all the better because it came from my own effort. The recipe is unique, and it came from Clotilde's Chocolate and Zucchini blog. I paired the pesto with capellini pasta and prosciutto and it was superb.

The recipe is so simple, and a great way to use the basil and strawberries that are in season right now. The fresh and somewhat bitter basil contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the berries and the saltiness from the cheese and prosciutto. Being creative with recipes simply means being creative with opposing elements to create balance. A little like life, don't you think?

Capellini with Strawberry Pesto and Prosciutto

Serves 6

You can use any kind of pasta for this recipe, but I do like a thin spaghetti or capellini best. Gluten-free or whole grain pasta would work well too. I suggest in the directions to not rinse your cooked pasta. Rinsing cooked pasta washes the sticky starch from the outside of each noodle, and this starch helps the sauce or pesto to cling well to each piece. This makes a big difference, see for yourself! Also, be sure to roast the almonds fresh, as fresh-roasted flavor is a major flavor contributor to the pesto. Otherwise, PCC Natural Markets carries fantastic roasted almonds in their bulk section.

1 pound capellini or angel hair pasta

2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
(Grana Padano works well too)

2/3 cup whole toasted almonds

2 handfuls (about 1 cup) fresh basil leaves

10 small strawberries (or 5 large) [be sure to use fragrant and full-flavored strawberries: if they're a bit bland, I'm quite sure they'll get lost in the battle]

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Few pinches freshly ground pepper

6 ounces antibiotic-free prosciutto

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

In a large saucepan, fill with water and bring to a boil. Add the capellini and stir for one minute to prevent the pasta from sticking. Bring back to boil and let cook until tender or ‘al dente’. Meanwhile, combine the Parmesan, almonds, and basil in a mixer or blender, and process in short pulses until the mixture forms a paste. Add the strawberries and olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and mix until smooth. Set aside. Slice the prosciutto into thin strips. When the pasta is done, drain, but do not rinse with water. Toss pasta with the pesto, adding the 2 additional tablespoons of olive oil if needed to help distribute the pesto. Serve in a mound on each plate, placing pieces of the prosciutto atop each mound of pasta. Garnish with basil.


Giggles and Grins said...

This sounds delicious! I am excited to try it. You got it right, girl! You are definitely the perfect blend, and you always have been. Even when your city dreams were just a glint in your eye :) You are one awesome lady!

Jon said...

Thanks for sharing insights into your world. I knew you growing up and also have had similar experiences growing up in rural central Indiana. We still live in a rural setting and have 5 acres--mostly wooded and with a small pond. I sometimes, though, am envious of city life. I'd love to have a loft in a downtown, urban setting some day. Probably after the kids grow up.