Nothing transports me to my childhood more than fresh, fragrant, sweet basil. It’s a leafy, green herb easily grown in Napa’s Mediterranean climate. Each summer, it was my duty to pick its leaves and give to my grandmother who would make pesto. Given its herbaceous, garlicky, cheesy flavors swimming in high-quality, extra virgin olive oil and a crunch of pine nuts, it remains my all-time favorite pasta topping. If this sounds tasty to you, it would be a pleasure to share her recipe along with a few related tales and trivia.
You probably already know that pesto does not have to be made with basil. It doesn’t even have to be made with an herb. It just means that, whatever the ingredients, they are ground together into a paste using a mortar and pestle. The club-like pestle instrument is what most likely gave pesto its name.
Although the etymology of the word “pestle” is unclear and could be from Middle English, Anglo-French, Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit, I’ll go with the Italian version, “pestare” meaning to pound. What is clear, however, is that a pesto is never cooked. (This is why pizza with a basil pesto topping always tastes a little bitter. A poor choice, in my opinion.)
Basil pesto originated in Genoa, Italy in the 16th century. Sweet basil, as opposed to Thai or lemon, is known as “Genovese basil” and its pesto is called “pesto alla Genovese.” When prepared with pasta, my grandmother would call it “pastasciutta con pesto” - pronounced pasta-shoo-ta. This just means that the pasta has been cooked.
Although I was never thrilled to pick basil (“basilico”), I was, indeed, always thrilled to shop for the rest of pesto’s ingredients and other kitchen staples. This meant a trip with my grandparents in their 1962 red Rambler to the Napa Valley Olive Oil Company in St. Helena. The company’s founder, Guglielmo Guidi, and my family were great friends and would travel back to Tuscany together. Can you imagine my wonderment in watching animated friends discussing the old country, in a lyrical language, while packing up jars of olives, stems of garlic, ropes of salami, bags of pignoli (pine nuts), and generous wedges of aged Pecorino - not to mention the newly-pressed extra virgin olive oil inside colorfully-labeled, one-gallon tins?
Once home, I’d watch my grandmother inspect three or four handfuls of washed basil leaves making sure that I had not included any bitter buds. She’d next take the tops off Italian parsley that I had also picked. This amounted to roughly three cups of basil and ¾ cups of parsley.
She actually didn’t use a mortar and pestle but an old-fashioned hand grinder. She maintained this tradition even when Cuininarts came along because the idea was to grind, not chop or slice, the basil. Grinding would allow the full flavors and fragrance to be released.
She’d put the greens in a bowl and add two cloves of chopped garlic, a small handful of pine nuts (about 1/3 cup), grated Pecorino (1/3 -1/2 cup), a dash of salt and pepper, and then stir in the oil. The quantity of oil depended on the quantity of greens and cheese but it averaged to be about ¾ cup.
She’d typically choose a linguine noodle to pour the pesto on and then sprinkle with more chopped parsley and cheese for decoration. Contrary to professional chefs’ and food critics’ instructions, her linguine was not cooked al dente. I don’t know when or why this chewy texture became the “right way” to cook pasta, but I prefer mine to be tender.
My grandmother would make a few batches of pesto at a time to freeze in jars. In my college years, I’d bring them to my friends who had never before seen such a sauce. This was in the early 1970s and soon after, to my surprise, it began to appear on restaurant menus – along with polenta which was my childhood punishment food and a story for another day.
We all need an extra helping of comfort these days. Why not make your own childhood favorite and treat yourself to a wonderful meal and wonderful memory.