Worshiping the Tulsi Plant, Pahari School, circa 1750.
Recipe below: Grilled Summer Zucchini with Thai Basil Crème Fraîche
I sometimes experience deep sadness when forced to serve people what I know is inferior food. This was never a worse problem than when I worked in catering in the late 1980s.
Back then grilled vegetables had to make an appearance at almost every event. It didn’t matter the time of year; caterers were certain that if guests didn’t see a platter of grilled vegetables somewhere, the party would be a social failure. I recall one event in particular, for 850 people, that took place in Grand Central Terminal. I don’t remember the theme or why it was held in such a lovely place, but a few other annoyed cooks and I spent three days grilling various vegetables and stacking them in hotel pans. Spongy zucchini in February? Had to have it. Bitter eggplant? Bring it on. And to make matters worse, the vegetables were served not even at room temperature but dead cold, along with some “spring” pesto that tasted a tad rancid after suffocating in plastic tubs for 48 hours. But it wasn’t the temperature that bothered me as much as the horrible gas taste left from cooking all the stuff on commercial grills. When I uncovered the hotel pans and served it all up, that noxious smell came blasting back at me. Gassy, blackened, and often still raw. This was always the case during my grilled vegetable days. Such an injustice. Nobody, even drugged-up partygoers, deserved to eat such stupid food.
I haven’t done catering in several decades, but creating food that’s not my best for anyone still disturbs me. I get angry even if I’m alone in my own kitchen cooking for my family. Every dish of pasta or plate of chicken needs thought and complete attention. I’m especially set off by bad ingredients. They can make me scream. But I also mean when something I’m cooking just doesn’t come out right. That, for me, is a deep-rooted disappointment. It’s a failure. I’ve let people down, friends, people I wanted to nurture or impress. But most of all, I’ve let myself down. And the longer I cook, the more pissed I get when things don’t go as planned. I’m hard on myself, but I’m also in love with celebration, so when a dish turns out as planned, or even better, well, that is the payoff, that is why I cook, and why I continue to cook.
I’ll tell you one thing, though: You can’t fail with this basil crème fraîche. It just tastes wonderful. Thai basil, or tulsi (holy basil), as it’s called in India, gives off an aroma and taste that drives me a little wild. To me it has a sharper and more licorice flavor than other basils, and it looks beautiful, with purple veining and dark, slender leaves. It was long so glorified in India that they hardly ever used it in cooking (only in tea). They kept the plants for ceremony, mostly for burials and weddings, arranging them and sprigs from them for presentation, or just strewing around the leaves. Luckily for me I’m a pantheist, so I get to eat just about anything I want, and I want to eat Thai basil. It’s growing extremely well at my little place upstate, better than the Genovese variety, even. For my basil-flavored cream I used a mix of both varieties, and the blend produces a full, sweet flavor, a sum greater than the parts. Later in the summer, when tomatoes are perfect, I’m going to add a dollop of the cream to my zuppa di pomodoro fresco.
Happy summer cooking to you.
8 large sprigs Thai basil, plus extra leaves for garnish
8 large sprigs regular (Genovese) basil
¾ cup crème fraîche
¼ teaspoon allspice
About 20 young summer zucchini, about 3 inches long, cut in half lengthwise
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon sumac
3 summer scallions, cut into thin rounds, including most of the tender green stem
Stem the basil, and blanch the leaves in a small pot of boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain into an ice bath to cool. Now squeeze out as much water as you can.
Place the crème fraîche in a bowl. Chop the basil finely, and add it to the bowl, along with the allspice. Mix well. Let sit at room temperature while you continue with the recipe.
Place the zucchini in a shallow bowl or on a platter, drizzle on a good amount of olive oil, and season with salt and Aleppo. Toss well.
Start your charcoal, and let it burn down to a nice blue-pink low-flame intensity. I use a perforated grill plate over my grill to cut down on excessive charring. It gives the zucchini time to cook through and brown, avoiding that upsetting black-on-the-outside raw-on-the-inside problem that direct grilling can produce.
When your coals are hot and ready, place the grill plate over the grill, and then let it heat for about 5 minutes. Brush it with a little olive oil. Put your zucchini on the grill, cut side down, and grill until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Turn it over, and grill its skin sides. After about a minute, give one piece a poke with a skewer to see if it’s tender. You want it cooked through but not falling apart. When it’s really young, the halves maybe only about ½ inch thick, this can go quickly.
When the zucchini is nicely grilled, lay it out on a curved platter, and sprinkle it with the sumac and maybe a touch more salt, if you like. Scatter on the scallions and the extra Thai basil leaves. Serve hot, with a dollop with the crème fraîche.