Growing up, my first recollection of pesto was from a cross country pasta party. I’m not sure how pesto and I hadn’t crossed paths until I was 16, but somehow we had existed in separate spheres. I’d like to be able to describe a rapturous first meeting, but I wasn’t the most adventurous 16 year old, and the pasta looked oily and green. Still, I remember how excited a number of the other girls were, but I’m certain I stuck with ziti and marinara.
Somewhere along the way I “discovered” basil. I have loved and killed a number of basil plants over the years. I don’t remember the first time I made pesto, though I’d guess it was after finding the recipe in “Going Solo in the Kitchen.” I suspect I’d been eating caprese salads with farmers market ingredients like there was no tomorrow, and had more basil than tomato and mozzarella one week. I liked pesto; I liked that it was green (my favorite color), was easy to make (always a plus), and didn’t require turning on the stove (double plus during the summer).
My personal favorite way to eat pesto is as a sandwich spread. I love a veggie sandwich with hummus on one side and pesto on the other. J also adores pesto, so it was an easy thing to make that I knew he would like. I’ve made far more pesto for pasta though than I have for sandwiches. I’ve found pesto to be the perfect thing to bring to a party. The first pesto pasta dish I made was cold, with sliced cherry tomatoes and tiny fresh mozzarella balls. I think I took that pesto pasta salad to every party I went to that summer. Pesto was new to my dad, but I knew I had “won” when I found him picking the pesto covered mozzarella balls out of the pasta salad when he thought no one was looking. Maybe that speaks more to his love of cheese than anything else, but I’m taking some of the credit.
St. Patrick’s Day has always been celebrated in my family. We are Irish, but it’s also birthday time. My birthday is March 18th, and my sister’s is March 20th. Traditionally we would have corned beef and cabbage and mashed potatoes for birthday dinner plus, the “big green cake.” My mom would make a huge (and awesome) shamrock cake by putting together three heart shaped cakes to form a shamrock. Last birthday/St. Patrick’s Day party, J was already vegetarian, and I was beginning to lean that way. I struggled to think of something vegetarian that still fit the Irish theme. Irish chefs may be breaking all sorts of new ground these days, but historically, “Irish cuisine” didn’t bring much to mind. Actually, all “Irish cuisine” brings to mind for me is potatoes. So I went with it, and pesto potato gnocchi became the new addition to the birthday dinner table. While I have made gnocchi from scratch before (and it’s totally worth it if you have the time and patience to invest), I’ve found that many of the store brands of gnocchi make a reasonable substitute.
This year J and I were alone in California for birthday weekend, which was a little bittersweet, as it’s the first time in 24 years that my sister and I haven’t been together for birthday weekend. Pesto gnocchi on St. Patrick’s Day still made an appearance though!
The following is more formula than recipe. I’ve found pesto lends itself very well to measurements in handfuls and pinches instead of 1/4 cups and 1/2 teaspoons. Plus, you’ll want to adjust based on how many basil leaves you can pick off the basil plant in your window or on your back porch. I can’t keep a plant alive to save my life, but even I’ve managed to keep a basil plant alive for
months weeks at a time. Plus, no matter how fresh the basil is from the store or the farmers market, there’s nothing like basil fresh off the plant and into your cooking.
1 handful of walnuts
2-4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 bunch of basil
Continuous drizzle of olive oil
Lemon juice (to taste)
salt (to taste)
Toss the walnuts and the peeled garlic cloves into your food processer, and grind until you get a fine crumb. Add the basil leaves and process for another 30 seconds- 1minute. Start drizzling in olive oil until you get the consistency that you want. I tend to like my pesto much thicker and more sandwich spread like, and so I add less oil. At this point, taste the pesto. I usually like to add just a little bit of lemon juice (~1/2 a lemon) because I like how it brightens up the pesto. Also add salt to taste now, and enjoy over pasta or spread on some wonderful bread.