05 June 2009

. . .and Pretty Maids All in a Row

One of the most delightful things about a garden is the anticipation it provides.
~ W.E. Johns, The Passing Show

gardener is an optimist by nature. One has to be, or one would never plant another garden! This would certainly be true in my case. Last year I had a beautiful crop of tomatoes ~ each plant dripping with emerald fruit. I looked forward to frying some of the green ones and leaving the rest to ripen. In two days ~ 2 DAYS! ~ all gone. Stripped by those nasty little rats with bushy tails. I still have not figured out whether they were tree squirrels or ground squirrels.

But I did not let last year’s tragic loss deter me this year. As I mentioned on Tuesday, eight tomato plants went in on Memorial Day, along with five green peppers and several seeds: sugar snaps, radishes, arugula, swiss chard and three rows of beans ~ this after we said no more beans ~ three rows really is not enough for me to use for a dinner party. I knew the sugar snaps went in very late and will probably not grow, but I figured we had nothing to lose.

In addition to the vegetables, we put in at least six or eight basil plants. Basil is the crown jewel of the kitchen garden ~ rosemary comes a close second in terms of flavor and versatility. But basil is king. We had a little trouble with our basil plants last year as well ~ a tad wilted, very few leaves and stunted height. I am still not sure why. Other gardeners I talked to either had a huge crop of healthy basil or had the same experience I did, but neither group had answers.

So instead of bushels of basil being ground into oodles of pesto, I had to make do with spinach ~ which by the way, makes an excellent pesto too. This year, however, I am holding out hope (and organic fertilizer) that my basil will be better. And I have even more incentive this year. I have discovered a grilled chicken sandwich with fresh basil that will drive your taste buds batty.

The original is at Vie de France bakery ~ which unfortunately for me is located a short walk from my office ~ and consists of thin grilled deli chicken, mozzarella, fresh basil, and a smattering of pesto, all crushed between two slices of ciabatta bread. After having it for lunch three days in a row and turning my coworker into a fan as well, she suggested I come up with a version to bring in. So without further ado, here it is:

French Bread
Blue Dairy Mozzarella (or your own local dairy), sliced into thin rounds
1 beefsteak tomato, sliced
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded thin and sautéed in 1 T butter
Fresh basil leaves
1 Clove of Garlic
1 Cup of fresh Parmesan or Pecorino-Romano
½ Cup of walnuts (you can also substitute pecans or pine nuts)
Olive oil
Various herbs

If you are pressed for time, you can buy chicken already cooked, but I like to season my own. The same goes for the bread ~ there are several great bakeries in the area and Colin Cowie says that if someone else can make it better then you can, let them. ;-) I find bread making quite relaxing, however, so I make my own when I have an “at home” day. It is better if you let the chicken marinate in the herbs and olive oil overnight. Same could probably said of pesto, but I like mine fresh out of the processor.

What is that, you say? You have never made fresh pesto?! And it is too difficult?! Fie! That is no way for a foodie to talk! Now, go pick some basil (or trot along to your local farmer’s market tomorrow morning and buy some) ~ don’t worry about chopping it, the processor will do it for you. Put a bunch of it in, drizzle a goodly amount of olive oil (no I am NOT going to tell you how much, eyeball it) add some walnuts to taste, a pinch of salt, about ½ c of shredded parmesan or pecorino-Romano and 1 clove of garlic. Do not make the mistake of adding more than 1 clove. I love garlic and thought adding more would be a good thing. Alas, not so. And basil is a terrible thing to waste. If it seems a little dry, keeping adding olive oil until the pesto is a thick paste. Just the thought of it makes me want to break out into song.

Spread some of the fresh, homemade pesto onto the bread, layer the chicken, mozzarella and tomato and finish with a few whole basil leaves on top. I made this for dinner last night (minus the pesto) and almost died in basil ecstasy! Serve with a nice tall glass of sweet tea and your guests will think you are a culinary genius!

Here’s to a successful summer of gardening and cooking!

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela
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