Awake at 6:37 AM. Out of the house at 7:07. Loading a cardboard tray with lemon basil, chocolate mint and other plants at 7:26.
Not the way I normally like to spend Saturday morning. It’s fine to wake up early as long I can go downstairs, greet the Buddha, make some green tea and return to bed where I’ll lounge with the newspapers, watching the sun rise over the woods.
But yesterday I was obsessed with getting everything I needed for the 5 O’Clock Garden.
This, as you might guess, is the sliver of the garden that shines at the cocktail hour. In high summer it’s bursting with ingredients that can be used to create drinks with flavors so vibrant that store-bought substitutes simply wilt with shame: fiery Thai chiles for infused vodka, fragrant black-stemmed mint forsuper-refreshing mojitos , dill flowers for homemade Bloody Marys, spears of home-grown cucumbers for Pimms Cups, garlic-pickled green cherry tomatoesfor vodka martinis, shaken or stirred.
Of course 5 o’clock is also about the time I begin thinking of supper. A garden full of herbs and a few vegetables is a fount of inspiration. Think ofroasted baby carrots with lemon thyme, bowls of green, gold and red cherry tomatoes, squash and sweet corn stirred with butter and a handful of basil leaves. Most of the vegetables come from the CSA box, but the herbs and tomatoes, those are our very own and they are the best.
In truth it’s a small garden, just four geometric squares separated by brick walkways emanating from a brick circle in the center. Years ago I got the idea to train four heirloom apple trees over a four-legged arch, each leg planted at the inner corner of one square. Now of course it’s so shady that there’s never enough sun for a real vegetable garden. We keep limbing up the other trees though, so somehow we usually have enough light to grow as many cherry tomatoes, herbs and chile peppers as we can eat. If we’re really lucky, a few cucumbers or a crop of interesting beans might make it to maturity.
There were so many fragrant plants in the car that I felt as if I were gliding home on a perfumed cloud. Here’s what I carried into the garden:
-Lemon, lime, purple, Valentino, Thai and sweet basil (10 plants)
-Lemon, lime, silver, English and French thymes (5 plants)
-Kentucky Colonel spearmint (perfect for juleps and Moroccan mint tea), pluschocolate and black-stemmed peppermint (for other teas and Vietnamese spring rolls) (6 plants)
-Dill, coriander and flat leaf Italian parsley (1 each)
-Pineapple sage, because I love the tropical aroma of the leaves and the red blossoms (2 plants)
-Jalapeno, serrano and red cayenne chiles (8 plants)
-Sun gold cherry tomatoes (4 plants), Supersweet 100 cherry tomatoes (4 plants), and Juliet, Green Grape and one unnamed black skinned cherry tomato (1 each)
I didn’t find Thai chiles or the cucumber I wanted—longing for the striped curly ones–or heirloom beans to train up the bamboo teepee waiting in one quadrant that’s already filled with the oregano, lemon verbena and French tarragon that came back this spring
There’s also marjoram, so much that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to think of ways to use it up.
Just so you know the depth of my obsession, be aware that in other beds, mixed with flowers, there are rosemary bushes, tons of chives and lemon balm that has spread like a weed and is constantly having to be ripped out and used for tea. (Pretty good, iced.)
Decisions, decisions: In the end I made the usual bamboo teepees for the cherry tomatoes, putting one plant at the base of each pole so they can be tied up as they start to sprawl. In the same sunny quadrant I planted all the chiles, half the basils, and the lone cilantro plant. I guess you could also call it the salsa corner.
The mints went into the shadier quadrant where they do quite well (just witness all the sprigs that have come back from last year), while the thymes were tucked next to the apple trees, replacing the ones that died during the winter.
In the messy bed with the sprawling marjoram, I found spots for the dill, the Italian parsley and the rest of the basils. It’s a real mash up, sort of like that room with all the mismatched furniture you love but don’t have a place for.
Yes, the garden looks a little puny at the moment, but let’s wait a few weeks and see what happens.
Of course you must celebrate the planting of the 5’O Clock Garden with a cocktail. Since we’re almost there, I’m calling this one May Wonder.
Start with fragile local strawberries, muddled in a shaker with fresh basil leaves of your choice. Sweet basil is lovely, but consider how the licorice flavor of Thai basil or the pungent citrus taste of lime or lemon basil might add an interesting twist to the cocktail.
Then add a squeeze of fresh lime juice, a little simple syrup, a dash of rosewater and, oh yes, a slug of white rum.
Go easy on the simple syrup. It doesn’t take much to make fresh strawberry juice taste like candied Kool-Aid. Lime juice can help balance the sweetness if you go overboard, but why use it as a corrective when the strawberries and lime are so delicious on their own?
And do use white rum, both for color (there is none) and flavor. Without knowing much about it, I bought a bottle of Brazilian Oronoco “Reserva,” a sultry white rum that turns out to be good enough to be sipped on its own. It has the slightest taste of coconut which certainly does no harm.
About the rosewater: Botanically speaking, strawberries are one of the many fruits in the rose family so there is a natural affinity between the flavors, but rosewaters vary in quality. Whenever I’m in Paris I buy it from Goumanyat et Son Royaume, a favorite spice shop that, sadly, seems to be in decline. This intoxicatingly fragrant elixir is made from sumptuous Persian roses for pilgrims going to Mecca; it comes in a spray bottle so you can either spritz the inside of your glass before pouring in the cocktail or spray the top of your drink before serving.
Unfortunately many commercially available rose waters taste like cheap perfume. (One good brand is the Lebanese Cortas, available at Amazon.) The best way to proceed is by adding a few drops, about 1/8 teaspoon, to the mixture in the cocktail shaker. The idea is to temper the sweetness of the fruit with a touch, but just a touch, of floral aroma. You can always add another drop or two, if needed, after the cocktail is mixed.
Sip a May Wonder late in the afternoon while admiring your garden handiwork. Who knows? You might like it so much that you’ll have to bring out the torches while you’re on your third.
May Wonder with Strawberries, Rose and Basil
To make one cocktail:
4 or 5 fresh strawberries, stemmed and chopped
3 medium leaves fresh basil
Juice of ½ lime
2 teaspoons simple syrup, or to taste
1-1/2 ounces white rum
1/8 teaspoon rosewater, or to taste
Basil sprigs for garnish
1. In a cocktail shaker, muddle the strawberries and basil together. Add the lime juice, simple syrup, white rum and a few drops of rosewater to taste. (Go easy—you can add more later.)
2. Fill the shaker with as much ice as it will hold, screw on the top and shake vigorously for one minute.
3. Remove the top of the shaker and strain every last drop of the liquid into a cocktail or martini glass. Garnish with a sprig of fresh basil and serve at once.