A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Nature of Exchange Dinners: September 2021

I like to think of my vegetable garden as a community. Tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, and corn. Each fruit or vegetable has its own unique personality, yet they all share a common goal, a goal not far off from our own human desires. But plants are just non-thinking, non-feeling, senseless beings…. Or are they?

I’m not going to try to prove that they can talk (although they do communicate non-verbally), but I am, hopefully, going to make the case why certain plants are perfect neighbors. We are reaching the height of summer’s generosity, when the produce we crave mid-December is at its peak. The perfect ripe tomato and it’s partner, fragrant sweet basil. The crisp cool cucumber and sweeter than sweet corn on the cob. These friends support each other both culinarily as well as botanically.   

The friendship between basil and tomatoes seems to go back to the beginning of time. However, they originated in two different areas of the world. Native to the Americas, tomatoes have been traced back to the Aztecs, around 700 AD. It was not until the 1500s that the tomato reached Europe. The pomi d’oro, or golden apples, are believed to have arrived in Europe via the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés. The strange, yellow fruits were thought of as eggplants and were widely accepted by the lower class southern Europeans, but considered poisonous by the wealthy upper classes in England. Theory has it that the acid in tomatoes caused the lead in their old pewter plates to leach out, giving them toxic stomach upsets. Mass European immigration and the blending of cultures brought the pomme d’amour (love apple) back across the pond where it was finally introduced to Canada and North America 200 years later.

Basil is native to India and other tropical regions from Africa to Southeast Asia, yet it has a wide culinary reach in that different varieties of the basil plant have been adopted into the cuisines of many cultures. The flavors of sweet basil, Thai basil, lemon basil, and holy basil are celebrated through food, medicine, and religious ceremony. But why is basil a friend to tomatoes? Basil contains volatile aromatic compounds in the form of oils, which give it a clove scent. This scent repels insect pests which are attracted to tomato plants, improving growth and flavor. Culinarily, the umami flavor of a tomato is perfectly paired with sweet, spicy basil leaves. 

Maize, or corn, is a cereal grain first domesticated by the indigenous peoples of Southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago. There are six major types of corn (and many varieties), which are dent, flint, pod, pop, flour, and sweet. What we crave in the summer is the sweet corn; a genetic variant in sweet corn that causes it to develop more sugars and less starch so the kernels on the cobs remain juicy. There is an average of 600 kernels per cob, yielding around ¾ of a cup and only 77 calories of carbs, protein, and fiber. The tall, sturdy stalks (corn is technically a grass), are the perfect supports for the creeping vines of a cucumber. The cucumber, with its prickly vines, are offensive to a corn plant’s worst enemy—the raccoon. In turn, corn protects cucumber plants against certain viruses, which cause wilt. 

Cucumbers are made up of 95% water, making them the perfect summer food to cool and rehydrate your body. They are good sources of phytonutrients which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer benefits. Applied topically, cucumber slices decrease swelling, irritation, and inflammation. With only 16 calories per fruit, cucumbers are perfect for those of us watching our weight. 

Botanically a melon, cucumbers have their origins in India. Through the Spice Route, they found their way to Europe as early as the first century AD. In fact, the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus loved them so much, he demanded cucumbers be on his table every day of the year. 

Enjoy!

For more information on Tilda’s Dinners every Friday, visit tildaskitchenandmarket.com.