Monday, August 20, 2007

Thai Volunteer

Anyone who gardens will see volunteers cropping up in his plot from time to time. These are plants that were not planned, that were not deliberately seeded by the gardener, that germinated all on their own and from who knows where.

Volunteers can be vexing or a complete delight, depending on the gardener's mood and how finicky he is about his garden design. Tomatoes, for instance, produce seeds that are nearly impossible to kill. Often they find their way into the compost pile, which then gets spread around in the various garden beds. So you often will see tomato plants sprouting everywhere and in the most unlikely places.

Sometimes I let these plants grow just to see what they will do. Last year one of my most productive tomato plants was a volunteer that popped up in a far corner the garden--I have no idea where it came from or what variety it was. Volunteer tomatoes are so thick at times you end up plucking them out like weeds.

This year it was cucumbers making unscheduled appearances. Once again, I didn't have the heart to remove them. If they are going to go to all the trouble of sprouting and surviving on their own, I figure they deserve a break. But vining cucumbers can be a nuisance once they are loose in the flower bed or twining among the edamame. Then they very often hide their fruits in the darkest places where you can't see them, so in the end you don't take any advantage from their being in the garden at all.

And just when I was complaining that we had no black-eyed Susans this year, a patch of them suddenly sprouted at the end of the cucumber bed. Really, I don't know how they made their way there. But I let them grow and spread their happy faces, even though they were completely out of place.

Recently I noticed another plant growing taller and taller among the beets. It was the only plant of its kind, spreading almost into a small bush, and I naturally assumed it was a weed. I only saw it from a distance and planned at some point to walk over and pull it out of the ground. Finally I did make my way over there for an inspection and discovered it wasn't a weed at all, but a rampantly healthy Thai basil plant, maybe the happiest basil plant I'd ever seen.

Again, no idea where it came from. We had never planted Thai basil in that area. Perhaps a seed had drifted over from the patch of Thai basil we'd planted at the opposite end of the garden a year ago. Yet we had never seen any plants this vigorous or grown to this size.

There was nothing to do but eat it.

I'm no expert in Thai cooking but we do love it. Often the process of producing a Thai meal is rather involved, just finding all the ingredients, and there usually are a lot of different ingredients in a Thai meal--herbs and spices and peppers of various kinds. We do have some Thai and Asian groceries in the area, but they require a trip. So I was determined to make this meal from items we already had on hand, and use as much of our newly discovered Thai basil as possible.

I started by sauteeing several of the small onions from our garden, sliced lengthwise. Then I thinly sliced two chicken breast halves and sauteed these as well, setting them aside for later. Now in the saute pan combine a cup or more of coconut milk, two tablespoons green or red prepared Thai curry paste (you can make your own curry, but it is rather involved), one tablespoon fish sauce, two teaspoons palm sugar (or light brown sugar), a small knob of ginger, peeled and cut into very thin match sticks, three or four kafir lime leaves (we keep them in the freezer), a fistfull or two or Thai basil leaves and the sauteed onions.

Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring the curry paste into the coconut milk, then reduce heat and cook at a slow boil for about 1/2 hour, or until the liquid has thickened a little. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. The basil leaves will almost disappear. Don't be afraid to add more, as you will still have lots left on your Thai basil plant.

While the sauce is simmering, add one can of straw mushrooms, drained, and the sauteed chicken. Continue cooking until everything is heated through. If there is not enough sauce, or it is too spicy for some reason, don't be afraid to add more coconut milk. To serve, ladle the curry with the chicken and mushrooms into shallow bowls over brown basmati rice. A Singha beer is the perfect accompaniment.

With any luck, your Thai basil plant will still be as vigorous as ever, meaning you must now find another recipe that calls for lots of Thai basil.


Karen Coates said...

You are so very lucky to have Thai basil for a volunteer!

Ed Bruske said...

I would say exceedingly lucky, karen.