My mom is a gardener.  More precisely put, she is a crazy gardening lady.  You know the type—goes to get the mail and ends up pulling weeds for hours, wakes up while it’s still dark outside in order to water her plants, stops the car at the sight of a coveted flower growing in the median: she’s been known to dig things up right then and there.

The front and back of the house I grew up are lushly blanketed with greenery and flowers; all landscaped by my mom, with minimal help from outside sources.  As a kid, I learned to identify plants by name: lantana, coleus, begonia, clematis.  She taught me to pull a weed by the roots and put me to work raking leaves in the side yard.  On Saturdays when she had been working outside since morning, my father would conscript me to push the screen door into the gathering dark and cajole her to “Come inside!” at last.  Those nights, she’d drink a beer, paper napkin layered between her hand and the cold bottle, sending her off to an early bedtime.

Jill is also a gardener, the instinctive kind.  She grew up, as you can read here, tending huge vegetable beds under the supervision of her parents, and continues that tradition by planting in our backyard every season.  At the moment, okra, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, & a cousin of black-eyed peas are making their way to our kitchen table, thanks to her care.

There is a common language spoken by gardeners, an understanding and relatedness that trumps differences.  The joy that rain can bring.  The efficiency and power of compost.  Vitriol toward those blasted enemies, squirrels and rabbits and deer.  Though I have been around gardening all of my life, and can fudge enough to get by, I’m still not part of the club.  Gardening doesn’t make sense to me the way it does to my mom or Jill, or one of the many other crazy gardening ladies in my life (my mother-in-law, my Shaila Aunty, my friend Sharon).

I think the gardener gene accounts for not a small part of what allowed my mom and Jill to bond as tightly as they have.  They can tromp around the yard together, troubleshooting, admiring, inquiring, and understand each other perfectly.  They can spend a whole day constructing a backyard fountain using nothing but bricks, an old aquarium, and a decorative vase (as they did a few years ago).  Jill has even inspired my mom to dabble a bit in planted vegetables, something she rarely did when I was a kid; this summer, my mom’s garden yielded her first tomatoes, sweet and red and more satisfying than any store-bought specimen ever could be.

That’s where I come in, see—I may not be the one to grow ‘em, but I sure know how to treat home-grown tomatoes right.

summer tomatoes, previously:

tomato bread pudding (incredibly decadent)
tomato-corn pie (in a biscuit crust!)
orzo pasta salad (perfect potluck food)

adapted from Food & Wine

When I first made this recipe, I was disappointed; it looked beautiful but tasted boring.  After a little doctoring (some lemon juice, more olive oil, more salt) and a little resting, the flavors came together into an understated, satisfying dish.

We are lucky to live close to the Gulf and therefore have access to beautiful, wild-caught, never-frozen shrimp.  If you can use the same, I highly recommend them; their sweet flavor does wonderful things with the basil and red onion in this salad.  Last but not least, don’t be afraid to use what may seem like an obscene amount of olive oil—it, along with generous grinds of black pepper and coarse salt, makes the dish come together.


1 lb. large shrimp, peeled & deveined
1 ¾ lb. unpeeled potatoes*
1 lb. tomatoes of your choice, quartered if small, diced if large
1 small red onion, thinly sliced into rings
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup dry white wine
juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
large bunch fresh basil, leaves cut into a chiffonade
generous amounts of salt & freshly-ground pepper

Boil potatoes in a medium pot of salted water until fork-tender.  Drain and let cool slightly.

Rinse the sliced onion in cold water briefly before tossing with the vinegar in a large bowl.  Quarter or cube the potatoes, then drizzle with white wine.  Add them to the vinegared onions and season with salt and pepper, tossing gently to combine.  Add the shrimp, tomatoes, and olive oil to the potato mixture and let sit for at least 5, but up to 20 minutes while you prep and cook the shrimp.

Cook the shrimp in a skillet coated with olive oil, tossing frequently until they become pink, ~5-7 minutes, depending on their size.  Remove from heat as soon as they are cooked through, to prevent them from becoming rubbery.

Add the shrimp to the potato salad, toss the mixture carefully, and top with basil.  Taste to check seasonings before serving.

*the original recipe called for russets, but I feared they would disintegrate, so I used baby red potatoes and thought their creamy texture worked well.