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Garden in the City: Don't Count Your Basil Until It's Harvested

By Patty Wetli | July 29, 2013 11:01am

LINCOLN SQUARE — How do you measure one-fifth of one-fourth cup of pine nuts?

That's the math I struggled with as I attempted to adjust a recipe for pesto, having harvested just one cup of basil — four cups short of the amount recommended by the Barefoot Contessa.

How the heck was that possible?

We've now reached that point in the gardening season I like to call "herbs gone wild," when folks across the country stare at rosemary plants grown to the size of a small human being and whimper, "I just wanted to make a loaf of foccaccia."

Last year, my idea that I would pinch off the occasional basil leaf or three for sandwiches turned into vat after vat of pesto as I attempted to keep up with my prolifically sprouting plants. Grilled pesto pizza became my signature dish of the summer — excellent with a side of watermelon and vinho verde, by the way — and I learned the trick of freezing the sauce in ice cube trays for handy single-serving pesto packs. Most of which I tossed out to make room for the next batch.

By August, I was seriously contemplating approaching strangers with the Borscht Belt-ian plea, "Take my basil, please."

Yet I included the plant in this year's garden not because I'm a glutton for punishment but because I knew I was guaranteed to have one sure winner if all else failed. If basil had not only survived but thrived during the sweltering temperatures and drought of 2012, I figured it would kick butt no matter what conditions Mother Nature threw at it.

Cut to a picture of me, snipping off branches and realizing that even if I whacked the plant to its roots, I'd only have half the basil needed to satisfy the Contessa.

"You've got to be kidding me," was my first thought, followed by "What did I do wrong?"

Maybe I had a lemon of a plant to start with. Maybe I watered too much. Or watered too little. Maybe it's been too cloudy or too cool. According to the National Gardening Association, basil will produce "abundantly" in the "heat of summer," and heat's certainly been in short supply this year.

Whatever the cause, it didn't matter — the day was getting late and I still had to put dinner on the table.

We grilled pizzas anyway, slathering the dough with a combination of minced basil, a smidgeon of garlic and olive oil — kind of like pesto, minus the food processor, Parmesan and pine nuts — and topped with slices of our first two Roma tomatoes (!) and cheese.

The milder "sauce" actually let the flavor of the tomato shine through, which is good to know, considering we have about a bazillion tomatoes on the verge of ripening.

Looking at our plates, where the pizza was accompanied by a hefty helping of homegrown beans, Dave ticked off all the things we had produced ourselves — pretty much everything except the cheese and dough, which we harvested from Trader Joe's.

"Could you make your own flour?" he wondered.

"What, you mean grow my own wheat?" I replied.

I don't know. Can I?

On another note: I owe broccoli an apology. After harvesting a single small head and casting aspersions on the plant's work ethic, I returned to the garden this week and discovered additional crowns forming. My bad.