Sunday, August 12, 2007

What summer tastes like

Do you remember your first taste of pesto? I remember mine. It was in 1985; I was an intellectual anarchist English major, playing Irish music with one band and Velvet-Undergroundish garage thrash with another. I had spiky Billy Idol hair, and every piece of clothing I owned was black. I worshiped Shakespeare and Burroughs and Borges. I was learning to cook. And this mysterious recipe in the Moosewood Cookbook looked mighty interesting.

Forget how you can find the stuff in jars on the shelves of every supermarket in the land now. Forget what a tired cliché of the brunch menu it has become. Imagine doing what I did, viz. buying basil, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese, and almonds (because it's 1985 and you’re in Athens, Georgia and the nearest pine nut is three states away), whirling the stuff up in your food processor having no idea what you're doing, boiling pasta, tossing one with the other, and tasting, for the first time, real homemade pesto. I had been cooking a lot of interesting stuff in those days (some of it was actually good, too), but that moment, my discovery of pesto, was a great awakening. I was Prometheus.

A couple of years after that, a friend of a friend moved into a house whose entire front yard had been taken over by basil plants. I had an open invitation to take as much as I wanted whenever I wanted. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. For two blessed summers, anytime I wanted to make pesto, I could go over to Mary's and gather buckets of leaves. My memory of those lush, slow, humid days is suffused with the thick druggy aroma of basil. Sitting naked with my girlfriend on the floor, slurping spaghetti covered with the ambrosial stuff, washing it down with ice-cold Carlo Rossi chardonnay. All the windows open, ceiling fan blowing the warm air around, "Love My Way" by the Psychedelic Furs on the radio. The slow-cycling chorus of cicadas. August.

So last night, as I was leaving Lori and Kenner's house, Lori came out into her garden and snipped a big plastic bagful of basil for me to take home. I processed it into pesto this morning, and this minute I'm hoovering down the last few strands of a bowlful of linguini I tossed with it. This truly is one of the very best things on earth.

After stemming and rinsing and draining, I had about two and a half firmly packed cups of leaves. I discovered last week that I have an absurd little one-cup-capacity food processor stashed away on a high shelf; where it came from I have no idea, but I couldn't have found it at a better time. Working in tiny batches, I gradually processed the leaves, three cloves of garlic, a quarter-cup of pine nuts, and a half-cup of extra-virgin olive oil into a thick green paste. I dumped that into a bowl and mixed in a half-cup of grated parmigiano reggiano and three tablespoons of softened butter. It's better to grate your cheese and work it in by hand separately from the rest of the ingredients. Other than that tiny bit of finesse, there's nothing to it. The magic is in the ingredients, which should be fresh and perfect, especially the basil. Save any extra sauce in a jar in the fridge, covered with a thin layer of olive oil to keep the basil from turning dark.

13 comments:

Mike said...

Why, yes, I do remember my first taste of pesto. It was prom night, and we went to New Heights -- the restaurant, not the metaphor. (New Heights in Woodley Park is a good nouveau cuisine place, but the big draw is that if you make reservations for three, they'll sit you at a triangular table. But I only had one prom date.) Anyway, the appetizer involved cilantro-mint pesto.

The first really great pesto I had, though, was at Cafe Luna at 17th & P, and it's still some of the best. (Restaurant-wise, anyway. I'm -- ahem -- not entirely sure I've ever had homemade pesto.)

An Briosca Mor said...

I don't remember exactly the first time I had pesto, but it was probably around the time of that early Seinfeld episode where George (apparently my alter ego) declared Seattle to be the pesto of cities. I'm pretty sure my first taste of the stuff was on a pizza along with sun-dried tomatoes, from some long-forgotten, now defunct place in Arlington. Now I make pesto all the time, and my method is basically the same as yours since I have a little food processor attachment for my whooshy. I do toast the pine nuts first, for a little extra bit of flavor, and I don't use butter in mine. But since most of the pesto I make gets frozen for later use, I also don't incorporate the cheese until right before serving. (I read somewhere that if you freeze pesto you should leave out the parmesan. I'm not sure why that is, though, but I do it anyway.)

Basil is actually pretty easy to grow around here, even in containers. It thrives on the hot sun and humidity. I usually have two or three big pots outside with basil every summer, started with those little plants you can buy at Whole Foods. I've also just bought those hydroponic basil things at WF a few times and planted them. They work. As long as you are sure to pinch back any flowering, the basil plants will continue to grow and even get bushy sometimes, even if you harvest from them a lot. Last year at the end of summer I was able to put up enough pesto in my freezer to last me all winter, just off a couple of big pots with basil planted in them that I'd been pulling leaves off all summer.

I've never tried the pesto with a naked girlfriend on the floor thing, but I bet it's good. What's not better on the floor with a naked girlfriend?

Rob said...

Well, deep-frying comes to mind.

While I consider myself firmly in the pesto traditionalist camp, I've done a few fairly successful variations on the pesto theme. Cilantro pesto tastes great, but it's good to combine it with a less delicate herb or the texture gets kind of odd. Mint would be great, I bet. Puddled under a grilled salmon filet. Yeah.

The Infallable Marcella Hazan says to leave the cheese out of pesto that you plan to freeze, but I'm not sure of the science behind that; hard cheeses are usually ok to freeze, as far as I know. But I'd still leave the cheese out because Marcella is right about everything. Not that I'd ever have the discipline to make a batch of pesto and deliberately not eat it all as soon as possible.

An Briosca Mor said...

No co-ed naked deep frying? Dude, where's your sense of adventure, your desire to live life on the edge?

I have occasionally made other pestos myself. There's an artichoke pesto I got from a L'Academie class that's good on pizza. I may even have done it for the Orion Chef grilled pizza event. If I didn't, I should have. Artichokes, walnuts, garlic, olive oil, parmesan, salt, pepper, and a bunch of flat leaf Italian parsley to give it a nice green color.

Rob said...

Since my mother occasionally reads this blog, my sense of adventure is something I'll only write about here in the most general sense. (Hi Mom!)

And godalmighty yes, I remember that artichoke pesto...

t said...

I do *not* think I would like to try deep frying with a naked girlfriend, either! Somehow, grease burns definitely cross the pain/pleasure threshold in a bad way--or maybe that's just me!....

Eating pesto, however, is a different kettle of fish....

Catching up on old comments from ages ago, something I would have said if I'd been able to read the blog in June: Mike, when I was a kid we also had one of those crazy spring-loaded nutcrackers. Endless fun, though I learned that if done with too much force, the nuts got smashed into a mess of nut and bitter stuff that was a pain to pick through--so it needs a delicate touch. Therefore, perhaps less manly--but now, how are ye all defining "manly"!

And Rob: I myself can crack pecans in my hand, or at least I used to be able to. Haven't tried it recently, though.

sara said...

In about 1989 I was living in Santa Cruz while going to college. Living with a houseful of co-op shopping, communal meal eating, composting, community gardening, home brewing environmental studies majors and there was a rage in the house for pesto. (this being santa cruz, pine nuts were no problem.) There was also a funny thing for toast -- it was a mascot of sorts, we had things cut out of the newspaper about toast all over the kitchen. Anyway, pestoast was the logical thing. My boyfriend took to growing a dense plot of bushy basil in chicken poop compost in the front yard under a plastic tent to cope with the cold fog, and we always had recycled tubs of the stuff in the fridge. There was a large Miro print on one wall that earned the loving title "Pestoast, No Fried Egg." Those were good days.

sara said...

by the way, do you know npr is doing a listener-contributions series about foods that mean summer? You should send them this.

Rob said...

Hm! Well, I just might.

I can see I'm going to have to whack another batch of pesto together asap. Pestoast. Yeah. Staff of life.

Jeanette said...

I don't remember my first taste of pesto, but I do remember the first time I made some, and stood there eating it off a spoon until I remembered to save some for the pasta.

My most recent taste revelation was blood orange vinegar. It's so VERY nice, especially on beets.

Ed Bruske said...

Kinda makes you want to just rub pesto all over your body and...

hsempl said...

My first pesto experience was about a week (maybe a few days) after I moved to DC seven years ago (from Oregon, and why I never had pesto there is puzzling) on the front lawn of the Josephine Baker house where I went to meet up with some natural foods people someone had told me about (mike?) who were having a picnic. Bill brought homemade pesto in a jar that he'd made from basil in his front yard to share. I forget what, if anything, I ate it on. I may have just used a spoon. *Probably* some kind of noodles involved.

A week later I was protesting franken foods with people dressed up as corn or something. What I remember most about that is meeting a counterprotestor who was wiht some society for the evolving of humans into robots.

Neat place.

Off subject, but a few years ago I got on a *Major* kick of crunching up walnuts and adding them to my homemade (nonmeat) spaghetti sauce or tomato soup. Have you ever done that? Have I made that for you?

Rob said...

And what, Ed? We're waiting. Don't think you can just come here and wave your ellipsis around willy-nilly like that.