Heavy-duty Basil

A couple of weeks ago we had a bumper crop of fresh basil which came from several plants that grew voluntarily from seeds fallen from one single specimen we bought a year ago. I was looking for a new way to use it – preferably as one of the main ingredients in some dish. Ed the Hubs had already made and frozen a couple batches of pesto, so we didn’t need more of that; we love Caprese Salad, but that doesn’t use enough of the stuff; and I don’t currently have the jars and lids needed for a repeat of the basil jelly I made two or three years ago. Mexican cuisine, my forte, doesn’t really use basil at all, so I was stumped.

Insalata caprese  (Caprese Salad): tomatoes, fresh mozzarela, and basil leaves, drizzled with olive oil. Photo (c) Robin Grose.

Google “basil recipes” and you will have a glimpse into the vast world of pesto that is out there. You will also encounter a whole honkin’ bunch of zucchini (or other vegetable) dishes with basil – all of which are great but which call for, at most, just a few basil leaves. I had huge handfuls of the stuff, and for some reason, I was stressing a little about seeing it go to waste. See, those plants were way overdue for pruning, and pruning basil is important if you want a sturdy, long-producing plant, and it’s too good to throw away and I gotta find a good way to take advantage of it and and and …

Basil jelly, sweet but not dessert-y. Good with cream cheese on crackers, for example. Photo (c) Robin Grose

You get the picture. I needed a recipe that featured a large amount of fresh basil. And I found a somewhat bizarre one: Camilla V. Sauslbury’s Chocolate Basil Cake. It was just weird enough – and called for just enough fresh basil leaves (one whole cup, packed) – that I decided to try it. (Note: For the most part I followed the recipe to the letter, except that, since I don’t have a food processor, I used an electric blender to mix the sugar, the basil, and the water. I also used a 7-by-11-inch Pyrex baking dish instead of a 9-inch round cake pan.)

Chocolate Basil Cake
Chocolate Basil Cake with chocolate sour cream frosting. Photo (c) Robin Grose.

We liked it a lot! So many times weird food is disappointing, but this recipe is a keeper. The basil flavor is quite strong in the raw batter, but of course softens considerably during baking. Still, it is definitely discernable in the final product. It was readily identifiable to Ed (who also knew what was in the cake), and held a lovely mysterious herb-y flavor for the next-door neighbors (who were not in the know). Ed thought the chocolate frosting was wonderful; I cringed, as it made everything way too sweet to be healthful – but deep down inside I was glad I had made the icing. All in all, this is a recipe I will be making again, albeit only very occasionally (due to high number of calories per serving and large amount of basil leaves required).

If you, dear reader, know of another good recipe that calls for large amounts of fresh basil, please share it in a comment. Those plants of will be producing leaves again with a vengeance after the pruning they just got!




A Twinge by Any Other Name



Photo credit: “Toothache” – New stonework for the Minster restoration project. Photo (c) Paul Hudson, creative commons license cc by 2.0

Last week I went to the dentist a couple of times for an issue with a crown on my front tooth. All the work was done with no anesthesia – which was fine, since the tooth in question has had no nerve in it for lo these many years. However, something the dentist kept asking me did make me cringe.

Sensitive to my well-being, the dentist inquired several times if I were feeling any “discomfort.” Well, actually, the word he used was molestia, since I live in a Spanish-speaking country, but this corresponds to the term “discomfort” I have heard in every English-speaking dentist’s office I have ever been in. It’s the use of this term that causes me more pain than some actual dental procedures.

See, what they want to know is if the patient is feeling pain – but they don’t want to use that word. I suppose that in dental school they are all beaten mercilessly with canes until they learn to avoid the words hurt and pain, but hey, if that’s what it is, why call it something else? To paraphrase the Bard, a twinge by any other name would smart the same.

Discomfort is not the same as pain. Discomfort is when I eat too much at Thanksgiving and my pants won’t zip up right for several hours, or when there’s one too many throw pillows behind me on the sofa, or when someone openly refers to the unwelcome elephant in the room. These things are uncomfortable and cause discomfort, but not usually pain.

Now, when my little finger gets broken playing volleyball in high school gym class or I greatly damage a ligament in my ankle by falling (up to my waist) into a huge hole in the sidewalk on the way to work, that’s pain, not discomfort. And when my second inferior molar aches when I chew cold food on the left side of my mouth or when the dentist sticks the pick-from-hell into a cavity before shooting me up with lidocaine, it hurts, and I feel pain, not discomfort.

Since I am not a mom, I don’t know these things: Please tell me that in hospitals they do not refer to the discomfort of giving birth. If so, I at least hope that all those less-than-comfortable ladies are offered meds for the discomfort caused by delivering a child. (Rolls eyes.)

So yes, Dr. Dentist, I am feeling discomfort. I’m stressed, my vertigo tends to flare up when I’m in your chair, the air conditioning is on a little too high, and it’s awkward trying to breathe with this huge wad of gauze in my mouth; all of those things are making me uncomfortable.

However, if what you are really wanting to know is whether or not it hurts, please ask if I am feeling pain. Let’s call things by their real names, shall we? And if we’re doing all this in Spanish, let’s ditch the molestia and come right out and say dolor.

I realize that this little rant is not going to make even the smallest dent in the revered politically correct chairside linguistics of dental practice, but at least I am able (thanks to the modern marvel of blogging) to publish my inconformity with such outrageous behavior.

And you, dear reader, have been a sweetheart to have borne with me all the way to the end – even if the only reason you did so was that you hoped to hear a little more about that time I fell waist-high into a hole on my way to work. Maybe some other time … (It was years and years ago.)

Disclaimer: No dental professionals were harmed in the writing of this blog post. The author has multiple tooth-career-related relatives and friends, and considers them all very fine people.


Sparrows and Birds of Paradise

Often as I walk down the street here in residential San José, Costa Rica, I am reminded of the wonderful little plant stores they had in the USA back in the 70s.

Does anyone else remember those? You’d be trudging through the February slush on a sidewalk in an Indiana town, when you’d come upon a shop selling tropical houseplants. A little bell would ring as you opened the wooden door and passed through the portal to a better world. Inside, all sorts of lushness and life that contrasted with the gray gloom of outside. Hanging spider plants tickled your scalp with their green and white offshoots while the upright scheffleras proudly spread their leaves in their characteristic umbrella-like arrangement.

Monstera in yard
3-foot long monstera leaves on the wall of a nearby house. San José, Costa Rica. (c) Robin Grose 

A lot of people prefer flowers, but I’ve always tended more towards interesting foliage. However – and while I loved most all of the plants in those shops – I secretly thought the philodendrons were a little boring. They were so staidly dark green, and they grew so slowly, after all; owning a philodendron seemed no more exciting than nurturing a fake plant. Better were the pothos, possessing similarly heart-shaped leaves but a much more visibly active lifestyle. The ferns, though – Boston, staghorn, bird’s nest – and the plants with variegated leaves like the zebra plant and croton, well, those were positively ethereal. Most all of them required an indoor life year-round (at least in the Midwest!) and careful attention to light and humidity.

For some reason, my long-time favorite was the inch plant, a little unassuming all-green cousin of the Wandering Jew. I think I loved the fact that it grew so quickly, inching over the sides of the pot, and was easy to care for and to propagate. I don’t think I realized it consciously then, but it was a powerful symbol of life to me.

Anthurium on empty lot

Plant growing wild on a nearby empty lot. Some kind of anthurium, maybe? San José, Costa Rica. (c) Robin Grose

Oh, and remember those plant-themed needlework kits? Crewel stitchery was kind of on the same wavelength of cool as tie-dye and exotic houseplants. I wish I still had the eyesight and manual dexterity to do justice to one like this or like this. They look charmingly dated now, but back then they seemed modern and ordinary. (By the way, if you have a finished stitching project like this – or even just the unfinished kit or pattern leaflet, I’d love to see a picture of it!)

Today, when I walk down my street and see many of these “exotic” plants in people’s yards, thriving (not just surviving) outside and with little human intervention, I can almost hear the tinkle of the bell on the plant store door and see the grow lights over their displays. I’ve come to respect the philodendrons much more; they still grow more slowly than many other plants, and in a place where most everything else bursts forth over-exhuberantly (at least during the 6 months of rainy season), their restraint provides a pleasingly restful contrast.

Schefflera as hedge
Scheffleras (“umbrellas trees”) grown as hedge. Club Los Jaúles, Coronado, San José, Costa Rica.  (c) Robin Grose

I chuckle to myself as I recall the lonely, spindly, 8-inch high schefflera I struggled to keep alive as a teen; they are commonly grown as bushes around here, and need frequent pruning. The small patch of Wandering Jew I planted in our apartment’s tiny courtyard has thrived enough to become a nuisance. Awhile back I had to yank out a small row of flourishing spider plants in order to make room for other things I wanted to sow; I was unable to find anyone who wanted to take them – for free.

Occasionally I’ll walk by a leggy poinsettia plant much taller than I am. It’s still a bit of a thrill, but no longer a surprise. Sygonium, anthurium, monstera, various types of orchids, elephant ears (the roots of one type are harvested as food here), sansavieria… these are the yard plants of this tropical clime … as is the humble inch plant, plugging away practically unnoticed as a ground cover, the little brown sparrow of the plant kingdom – and still one of my favorites.


The Number Fifty-two

I asked for a dougnut birthday “cake” this year and got a really delicious one! They refused to put all 52 candles on it, though.

I recently had a birthday and turned 52 years old. I was holding a notion in the back of my mind that this number had a certain significance in Judaism, so I looked it up. I was wrong; the special Jewish number I was thinking of was 54.

My disappointment turned to mild interest, however, when I saw a number of random things that are related to my current birthday integer which also had some sort of meaning in my own life. It turns out that:

  • A piano has 52 white keys. I took piano lessons for a couple of years as a kid. My first teacher was too stern and strict for a child such as myself, so they switched me over to a much nicer lady who had me playing songs I’d never even heard before, which wasn’t very motivating. I’m grateful to have had some basic music education, but I do wish it had been a little more fun.
  • 52 is the international direct dial phone code for calls to Mexico. I lived in Mexico City for over 20 years. My mom must have dialed that code hundreds of times!
  • It is also a significant number on the Mayan calendar — another Mexican connection.
  • There is a highway known as US 52 which runs from South Carolina to North Dakota. It passes through my birthplace in Indiana and is the main street of Joliet, Illinois, which I have visited as an adult, so I know I’ve been on that road.
  • Fifty-two American hostages were held in the Iran hostage crisis. This occurred largely during my year as a high school exchange student, so I didn’t follow it very closely, but I do remember it; it was a significant incident in my youth. Wonder where all those people are now – hostages and hostage-takers?
  • There are approximately 52 weeks in a year. So so far I have lived 52 cycles of 52.
  • 52 is the atomic number of the element tellurium. I wish I had a neat story about this, but, frankly, I got nuttin’.

So I guess one can just take a random number, or letter, or color or whatever and find ways it applies to one’s own life. Of course, that would only appeal to nerdy types like myself, who enjoy simply sitting and reading through a page in the dictionary or poring over the obscure place names on a page from an atlas. (Please tell me I am not alone in liking these things!)

I look forward to two years from now when, God willing, I’ll celebrate 54 years, which is a multiple of 18. According to Chabad.org: “Eighteen is the numerical value of the Hebrew word chai which means life. It is a Jewish custom to give monetary gifts in increments of 18, thus symbolically blessing the recipient of the gift with a good long life.” Now if only my gift-giving loved ones were Jewish …


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