"Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom"
Marcel Proust's words ring close to home, having been raised by a gardening mother who nurtured me and my siblings from seedlings to full-grown adults. My most tangible, childhood memories are set outdoors, ranging from the tedious (weeding) to the delicious (homegrown produce) When not pillaged by wily woodchucks, Farmer Mom's garden enriched our meals with tart raspberries, crunchy peas, and, most bountifully, basil.
Mom's bumper crop was well-timed with the early eighties' infatuation with Italian cucina. Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking was the home chefs' bible, and pesto (which Nora Ephron dubbed "the quiche of the 80's") was all the rage. With an abundance of basil and an insatiable brood, Mom made pesto a regular at the Steinman family table.
Pesto paired perfectly with Mom's ethos; like her, it was classic, simple, unfussy and utterly gorgeous. Pesto celebrated her love of the land while its ease to freeze embodied her practical side. Mom stored her pesto in glass beakers from Dad's lab so that our freezer resembled a mad botanist's workshop. Each time she'd pluck a bottle of ice-cold, green elixir from the fridge, we were eager participants in her culinary experiment.
Feeling nostalgic on our 30th birthday, Lesley and I asked Mom to cook up this childhood favorite. We had gathered 15 close friends in Paso Robles for a wine-tasting, cooking class extravaganza. Mom's Connecticut garden was bursting with basil, so she offered to fly the homegrown herbs cross-country. Others would have chosen an easier route, like a local supermarket perhaps? Mom didn't flinch at the prospect of lugging a bushel of basil 3,000 miles. "I was the most popular passenger on the plane" she exclaimed, thanks to her wonderfully fragrant carry-on.
This was vintage mom: going the extra mile to ensure our pleasure and embracing our friends as her extended family, all while exuding her signature super-positive, Midwestern enthusiasm.
Recipes for pesto are as varied as Italian mammas. Marcella's "most seductive of sauces" calls for a luscious addition, butter, which suits Mom's butter-infatuation--her "pats" are a decadent 1/4 of a stick. In the spirit of Mother's Day, gather your loved ones around the table for this simple, savory supper. Why not plant basil--a la Claudia--so the gift lasts all summer.
adapted from Marcela Hazan
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp. pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine before putting in the processor
⅓ cup freshly grated parrmigiano-reggiano cheese
2 Tbsp. freshly grated romano cheese
3 Tbsp. butter, softened to room temperature
1½ lb. pasta
1. Briefly soak and wash the basil in cold water, and gently pat it thoroughly dry with paper towels.
2. Mix basil, olive oil, pine nuts, chopped garlic, and generous pinch of salt in blender or food processor until creamy.
3. Transfer to a bowl, then mix in the two grated cheeses by hand. It is worth the slight effort to do it by hand to obtain the notably superior texture it produces. Mom's elegant, long fingers were well-suited for the task
4. Add the softened butter, incorporating it evenly into the sauce.
5. When spooning the pesto over pasta, dilute it slightly with a tablespoon or two of the hot water in which the pasta was cooked.
Freezing pesto: Make the sauce through to the end of Step 2, and freeze it without cheese and butter in it. Add the cheese and butter when it is thawed, just before serving.