Nature and St. Valentine’s Day

The topic of this blog–nature–is a big one, so I have lots of choices of topics. Did you know that there’s a connection between Nature and Valentine’s Day? According to medieval English legend, first set out in Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetic dream-vision “The Parlement of Foules” (written around 1382), Valentine’s Day is the beginning of warm weather and the day when the birds choose their mates.

Warm weather? The beginning of spring? Yes–the English reckon their seasons differently from us. We say that spring begins on March 21 and summer begins on June 21, so the three summer months are June, July, and August. To the English, June 21 is Midsummer Day (the middle of summer); their summer months are May, June and July. So if the equinox, March 21, marks the middle of spring, it follows that right now, the middle of February, is the beginning of spring. And it makes sense to think of the seasons this way: the sun is climbing quite high in the sky these days, it’s light until 6:00 p.m. or a little later, and the sun’s rays feel quite strong (so a few warm days like today might melt a lot of the snow). Something nice to think about–spring is closer than we think! In fact, it’s really here.

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The taste of summer

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Basil is the taste of summer. Dried basil tastes nothing like fresh, and the tired pale green things you can buy in winter taste like nothing at all. So we eat basil only in summer, when we grow it. It’s almost enough to make me appreciate hot weather.

In Italy, I’m told, they make pesto when the basil plants are no more than 6 inches tall. I wait a little longer, because if I did that, I wouldn’t have room for all the plants I would need. I harvest the basil when it starts to bloom, because after that the taste is strong, not delicate and perfumed. I cut the plants down at ground level and use only the leaves. The plants will regrow, so there will be at least a few leaves for the rest of the summer.

When the basil blooms is when the weather turns hot and when the beetles I call June bugs (shiny red-brown beetles about 1/3 inch long) appear to devour the leaves. The three things are not coincidental. If I waited a week longer, many of the leaves would be no more than skeletons. So it’s time to make pesto in northern New Jersey.

The photo above shows six basil plants–half my crop (I bought and planted a flat the last week in May). That’s the amount of leaves that can fit in my food processor in one batch. In a day or so I’ll harvest the second half and we’ll make another batch. And that will be it for the pesto. We freeze it in tiny containers, and if we’re very lucky, there will be at least one left on a dark, freezing winter day to remind us of the garden in summer.

How do you make pesto? Few things are easier. The ingredients are garlic, basil leaves, pine nuts, and good olive oil, plus salt and pepper. Start by putting a couple of cloves of peeled garlic in the food processor and process until it’s finely chopped. Add as much basil as the bowl will hold (mine is the big Cuisinart that holds 11 cups), plus about 1/3 cop of pine nuts (toasted if you’re feeling ambitious), plus salt and pepper. (You can add Parmesan cheese as well.) When everything is ground up, add about 1/3 cup of olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Taste for seasoning, and you’re done. It will take you about an hour to process the leaves–remove them from the stems and wash and dry them–and about two minutes to make the pesto. The six plants yielded about a cup of pesto. But it doesn’t take much pesto to make me happy.