Pleasure Practices with Sami Schalk: Grow something good, then eat it

How to start a pleasure practice herb garden.
An illustration shows the face of the column's author, Dr. Sami Schalk, smiling against a rainbow background. In the foreground are a sandwich, a cup holding a steaming hot beverage, and a stack of books on which the text "Pleasure Practices with Sami Schalk" appears. Two candles sit on top of the books. Illustration by Rodney Lambright II.
Illustration by Rodney Lambright II.

How to start a pleasure practice herb garden.

Praise Beyoncé it is May, spring has sprung, and the end of the academic year is upon those of us in education. This is always the time of year where I begin to feel more alive and attentive to the details of the world around me (thank you sunshine, thank you kind messages from students, thank you green trees and blooming flowers). My current pleasure practice in this moment is preparing my little balcony garden for the season. Last year I grew fingerling potatoes, cherry tomatoes, spinach, and herbs on my northwest-facing balcony. The fingerlings weren’t a success, but the others did quite well, so I’m back at it again this year. 

I find real meditative pleasure in caring for plants and watching them grow. Each new leaf, new sprout, feels like a miraculous accomplishment. Even though I’m nowhere near being an urban farmer or even a gardening expert, the pleasure of watching something grow and really truly attending to that growth is deep for me.

This month, consider adding some edible plants to your pleasure practice. If you’re new to gardening, don’t have much outdoor space, or only have indoor space by a window, I recommend starting with herbs and using starter plants from one of our local nurseries. I like Klein’s, K&A Nursery, and Jung’s. Sometimes there are farmer’s market vendors selling starter plants as well. Choose an herb you’ll actually use in your life, plant in a container that drains well, put it in a place where it will get regular partial sun, and water thoroughly whenever the top inch or two of the soil is dry. 

In terms of what to plant, you have lots of options. Mint is particularly nice if you like to make fancy muddled cocktails. Chives go great on egg or potato dishes. Rosemary is a staple of Italian cooking including pasta and focaccia bread, for those of you who developed your bread skills in lockdown. But my favorite starter plant is basil because even if you’re not a person who cooks a lot or knows how to use fresh herbs in your cooking, basil will not fail you because basil can become pesto and fresh pesto is fucking delicious.

Fresh pesto in a small mortar and pestle.
Photo by Sami Schalk.

Pesto is really any ground herb, cheese, oil, garlic, nut combination, but traditionally it involves basil, parmesan cheese, olive oil, and pine nuts. There are a million recipes online, but once you know the basics, you can play and improvise to decide what combination and amounts work best for you. Here’s roughly my recipe (TBH I don’t really measure closely).

Pleasure Practice Pesto

  • 1 cup fresh basil 
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese 
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts (you can also use walnuts, but I never do)
  • 3-5 cloves minced garlic
  • Salt and pepper to taste

You can use a food processor to blend the shit out of all of these ingredients (add the oil last and slowly to blend), or you can be like me and mortar-and-pestle everything because you don’t own a food processor. In that case, start with the pine nuts until all smashed (I’m pretty sure that’s the technical term), then add and smash the basil (with a little of the oil if needed), then smash in the garlic, cheese, and some of the oil, then use a spoon to mix in the remaining oil until well combined. You can also add other fresh herbs from your pleasure practice herb garden.

Once you’ve made your fresh pesto there’s so much you can do: put it on pasta or add it to a white sauce, top chicken or salmon with it and bake, put it on some bread, make some fancy toast with it, share it with friends, or freeze it if you won’t use it within a few days (in that case I would recommend not adding cheese). Whatever you do, you’ll get the extra pleasure of knowing you grew that basil yourself because you’re a badass resourceful bitch. Grow something edible this spring and summer and enjoy the literal fruits (and vegetables and herbs) of your labor!

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