When my uncle gave me chili seeds this winter, the gift also came with a piece of advice: Plant the seedlings with tomatoes and basil. Companion planting is a method of fostering a symbiotic relationship between certain plants. These plant groupings support the arrival of the right insects for pollination, while simultaneously discouraging pests, and avoiding competition for the same nutrients in the soil. When I looked for other plants that could be compatible with the chili seedlings, I found brightly colored Venn diagrams and charts that offered different options for small urban gardens and even container pots. My research paid off; my tiny 8×3 ft. vegetable patch is now packed with Swiss chard, tomatoes, basil, and chili pepper seedlings. The cover provided by basil, a low-growing plant, should increase the humidity required for the chili plant to thrive, and its fragrance will repel the pesky tomato hornworm. The big tomato leaves should protect the chili peppers from the sun while the roots of the chili peppers block the growth of certain fungi.
As I was mapping out my patch, I wondered if the adage “what is grown together goes together” was why our family often enjoys juicy sweet tomatoes and freshly-plucked basil together. Pairing this combination with fresh mozzarella and whisked red wine vinaigrette (1 part red wine vinegar to 3 parts olive oil, plus kosher salt and pepper to taste) creates our favorite go-to summer flavor. Another companion plant/companion food combination that I will enjoy this summer is Swiss chard and tomato. I am excited to try them in combination with dried beans and couscous for a new summer salad.
It is not just plants and food that go together. Food and beverage pairings such as Chinese food and black tea or steak and big red wines are universally enjoyed. Tannins found in both tea and red wine are astringent (which is what creates a dry sensation in your mouth), and work well with the fat in meats to accentuate the taste of protein. It is this same astringent taste in beer that has us eating bowls of salted peanuts!
In ayurveda, an ancient Indian holistic practice, certain food pairings are discouraged as they are said to create an imbalance in the body. Eating foods that create opposition in our bodies (such as iced drinks after food) is tamping down the heat created by digestion, thereby slowing the process. Similarly, fruits and cold milk are never combined as milk acts as a laxative while fruits act as a diuretic, resulting in poor digestion. Yet I love my fruit (specifically, mango) shakes!
Do culture, current fashions, or our environment dictate our choices? When in doubt, simply follow the advice of a chef with a passion for local and seasonal ingredients – Alice Waters writes simply in The Art of Simple Food: Notes, lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution: “Let things taste of what they are.”