This is the second article narrating the story of a tiny community garden: the first was published in the spring 2007 issue.
By Simona Carini
Before becoming involved in maintaining the community garden in my Berkeley neighborhood, I had no experience in the field. I grew up in a small apartment in Perugia, a city in central Italy. The few plants in our house were decorative and relegated to small pots. The only exception was basil, which my mother would plant in a large container every spring and harvest throughout the summer for use in tomato salads and fresh tomato sauce.
Since moving to California, I have tried a few times to grow basil, with lackluster success. One year I would choose a spot with too much sun and the following year one with not enough of it. My partiality for basil received an enormous reward in the luxurious production of the community garden, where the plants thrived with a vengeance. Many neighbors heeded the invitation posted and picked fragrant leaves.
Singing the praises of fresh basil is best achieved by making pesto with it. Pesto originated in the Italian port city of Genoa, and its first published recipe dates to 1863. Last March the first World Championship of pesto was held in its home town. The contestants received the official recipe and their renditions were then judged. The name pesto comes from the past participle of the Italian verb pestare (to pound). In fact, the original pesto is made by placing the ingredients in a marble mortar and pounding on them with a wooden pestle until the sauce attains the desired consistency. Needless to say, preparing pesto in this way requires a lot of time and elbow grease; the good news is that using a food processor, although frowned upon by purists, is not outlawed. It actually yields a creamier sauce of more consistent texture. The flavor of pesto depends heavily on the flavor of the basil used, but the quality and quantity of the other ingredients play an important role in highlighting the basil’s taste, while at the same time providing different nuances.
Most, though not all, the culinary basils are cultivars of Ocimum basilicum, also known as sweet basil. The traditional recipe requires the Genovese cultivar, grown in a small area of Genoa called Pra. The locals there say that if the basil is foreign, then the result is not pesto, but I am perfectly content with the sweet basil we grow in California, because it is fresh. I have never tried to make pesto with other types of basil or other herbs. However, an early reference to pesto mentioned parsley and marjoram as possible ingredients, depending on the season. I interpret the latter specification as a prescription for using basil in the summer and for substituting it with other herbs when basil season is over, so that the main ingredient is always newly picked.
The first published recipe included formaggio d’Olanda among the ingredients, a testament to the active commerce between Holland and Genoa. Later, pecorino from Sardinia took the place of Dutch cheese. Still later pine nuts were added to the mix (walnuts are a common substitute, used in both Italy and California, which produced 350,000 tons of them in 2006).
Traditionally, pesto is the seasoning of choice for trenette, a kind of pasta similar to linguine. I use it also to season potato gnocchi. Half a cup of pesto is enough for a pound of pasta. Since the recipe I follow yields one cup, I usually freeze the remaining half a cup for later use. I have not checked with the pesto authorities whether freezing is allowed. It is, however, handy to have a small stash in the freezer. Preparing a dish with bright green pesto can help chase away winter blues and restore faith in the arrival of the fair season. The basil described in the previous paragraphs grew in the Happy Forever Community Garden, a unique patch of paradise cultivated in a Berkeley traffic diverter since June 2006. (We introduced this garden in the Spring 2007 issue of Edible East Bay. If you did not have the chance to see it, see subscription information on page 4 for back issues.)
During the first summer, our small patch of urban land did more than produce hefty bunches of basil.
By mid-July the garden looked like a jungle, with squash branches shooting in all directions and growing broad, sturdy leaves. Armed with long gloves, I trimmed back some of the invaders and discovered Persian and lemon cucumbers, the latter particularly tasty and also quite cute, in their sunny yellow attire and delicately prickly exteriors. One afternoon I had an audience of three boys, entranced by my description of the different plants in the garden. They wondered about the edibility of the lemon cucumber, and to allay their skepticism, I regaled them with samples of the unfamiliar vegetable and they walked home talking excitedly about their recent adventure.
My favorite vegetable lay close to the fast-growing corn: green beans. I was amazed at how productive our few plants were—the more beans I picked, the more I found that were ready to be picked. Rachel had planted bush beans, which, unlike pole beans, do not need to climb over a support. I love a salad of green beans. Unlike many people, I like my beans well done, so that they almost melt in my mouth. From a nutritional point of view, it is actually better to keep boiling time to a minimum, which also maintains the bright green color of the beans. After boiling them to the desired level of tenderness, I let them cool to room temperature, then cut them into bite-size pieces and season them with a thread of olive oil and a generous amount of balsamic vinegar. Fresh lemon juice is an alternative to vinegar that produces a more subtle flavor.
As a child, my mother would ask me to snap off the top and tail of green beans before she boiled them. It was a tedious task, but the thought of a bowl full of the beloved vegetables carried me through the two-pound pile of beans placed in front of me. Removing top and tail from a bean allows you pull the string along the seams, in case it is tough—a rare occurrence nowadays, thanks to the selection by growers of beans without that undesirable trait.
One evening, Rachel sent me via e-mail an invitation to pick the melon-size yellow squash I had noticed in the southwest corner of the garden and labeled “young pumpkin.” She assured me it was a ripe squash and so I picked it—more like hauled it, actually, given its substantial weight. Back in my kitchen, I wondered how to handle the Brobdingnagian squash. I cut it in half lengthwise and the outer layer was surprisingly yielding to the blade that was expecting pumpkin-grade resistance. I cut one half in half, then sliced each quarter crosswise and finally cut the slices into roughly triangular pieces. Not having other frames of reference for my experiment, I imagined I had zucchini and sautéd the pieces in olive oil and minced garlic for about 20 minutes, then added a generous mix of fresh herbs, which included basil from the garden and oregano from my yard. I served the squash for dinner and it was delicious. Later on we harvested king-sized white pattypan and green round squash, the former an ideal ingredient for frittata and the latter my favorite in terms of flavor. Were the oversize dimensions of our members of the Cucurbita pepo species the result of some cross-fertilization event with the giant pumpkin Rachel had planted? We don’t know exactly what happened in the field, but we certainly appreciated the extravagant results.
I grew up calling summer squash zucchine and eating a lot of it, grudgingly as a child, greedily as a teenager and then an adult. Frittata di zucchine is a dish my mother makes quite often in the summer. She has a special frying pan to cook frittata and her flipping technique is flawless: as a prop she uses a plate that is slightly wider than the frying pan. She places the plate face down over the pan and with a secure gesture flips the pan so that the frittata lands neatly on the plate. She then puts the pan back on the burner and slides the frittata into it, so that the erstwhile top is now the bottom. I have always admired her skill in handling this tricky maneuver and always dreaded having to follow in her footsteps. To play it safe, I use the broiler to cook the top side. The risk in this case is to forget the frittata in the oven, so setting the kitchen timer is warmly recommended.
While the other plants were thriving and generously donating their fruits, the Sungold cherry tomatoes were running late. The plants were doing well, graced with tiny yellow flowers, but they were not showing signs of fruit. It would have been nice to assemble a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers and enliven it with basil, all growing within a few feet of each other, but it was not meant to be. Toward the end of September the basil plants started to flower, clearly signaling the end of their production cycle, the cucumbers were no longer at their peak, but the tomatoes still lingered in the preparation stage, like a prima donna purposely delaying her arrival at a party in her honor.
Finally, after all the corn, green beans, gypsy peppers, cucumbers, and squashes had been harvested, tiny green berries appeared, forerunners of longed-for tomatoes. Soon after, the green globes turned dark orange or bright red and offered themselves to be picked and placed in the mouth, like savory chocolate truffles. The tomatoes ended up having to share the stage, though, with the giant pumpkin, which took residence next door to them, in the southeast corner of the garden. The story of our urban pumpkin wears the colors of the fall season and I will therefore tell it in the next issue: Stay tuned for another episode of the garden’s saga. •
The Happy Forever Community Garden, located on Domingo Avenue at Hazel Road in Berkeley, is always open to receive visitors.
A native of Italy, Simona Carini moved to the Bay Area 14 years ago to live with her (now) husband. At the time she was not a cook and not interested in becoming one. Now, not only does she enjoy cooking, but she has also started to write about food. She works part-time at UCSF as a researcher and helps her husband run the small non-profit he founded a year ago.