I almost kissed the dark little seeds as I tucked them into rows of finely hoed soil. I worked with a concentrated care and patience rare for me in the garden. Lacking a green thumb, I hope for the best from the vegetable patch and welcome whatever flowers volunteer themselves. The one obligation I take seriously is to sow and nurture a good and plentiful crop of basil. The seeds I've planted so painstakingly should pop up in a week or two and begin to grow into the healthy, aromatic plants I esteem above all others. By late May or early June, I can begin to pluck enough leaves to blend with pine nuts, olive oil, melted butter, garlic, and parmesan cheese into pesto pasta sauce for the gods.
In my childhood home, spaghetti was always topped with tomato sauce. I couldn't imagine one without the other, or anything tastier than my mom's spaghetti supper, a favorite staple of the household.
I was in my 20s when I first encountered the pesto alternative, at the home of friends with more cosmopolitan pasta palettes than mine. Joining Consuelo in her kitchen, I watched as she folded a thick green paste into a bowl of steaming noodles. She began to toss the strange mixture with an appreciative sniff, and I realized I was in for a culinary jolt. I'd never seen or certainly tasted anything like it.
At the table I sat uncertainly over my plateful. I had to admit that it did smell wondrous. I slowly twirled a forkful and politely brought it home. And as any pesto aficionado knows, the rest is history.
I've kept my old taste for tomato sauce, and have taken to alfredo, too. But over the past 20 years, I've most often topped pasta with pesto. I like to dine on green spaghetti with a cadre of friends who share my passion.
When the phone rings and I hear a faint whisper at the other end, I know it's Colin.
"Pesto...." he intones in barely audible syllables. Then, a bit louder, he suggests, "Pestooooo...."
"Pestoooooo," I respond without hesitation, my voice rising insistently on the final syllable. To which he belts out, in no uncertain terms,"PESTO!!" a sentiment I echo in even fuller throat. Then we get down to time and place.
Anyone eavesdropping on our conversation would paint simpatico lunatics not the perfectly sane old friends we are, arranging an impromptu dinner with a select group of pesto lovers folks who can be counted on to adjust their schedules around the occasion. Always in attendance are Wendy and Homer, whose pesto is creamier and more garlicky than mine. (The basic recipe allows, even invites, infinite variation according to taste.) They also have a bigger freezer than any of us do, the better for storing a winter's supply of pesto. There is just nothing like a burst of basil to declaw January.
As Wendy has discovered, fresh basil and olive oil can be blended and frozen together in ice cube trays the rest of the ingredients, added fresh to thawed cubes of pesto "starter," make for an even more springlike winter pasta.
My own love affair with pesto has only deepened over the years in which my son has grown from his babyhood into an impressively muscled young man. If you wonder whether pesto provides a good source of vitamins and protein, just look at him.
Recently, from a new (and perhaps not coincidentally, pesto-loving) friend came what must be considered the pesto lover's bible. Lorel Nazzaro, author of "The Pesto Manifesto" (Chelsea Green Publishing), who admits to encouraging her own basil sprouts verbally (in Italian, no less), offers this and other horticultural hints. She also gives tantalizing historical insights on basil (a protective spirit of Hindu households, and the only herb ever to be awarded the All-American Medal), and a wealth of new ways to use pesto.
It is, Nazzaro suggests, an excellent food for backpacking, something I'm ashamed I've never thought of myself. The concept adds impetus to my resolve to one day hike the Appalachian Trail in its entirety. Among the little book's recipes I plan to try in the near future are pesto guacamole (talk about heaven), pestoed eggs, asparagus in pesto, and, for Tim's sake, pesto pizza.
But is there anything better than pesto over pasta? I wonder this now, just as I wondered in my adolescence if pasta could exist, edibly, under anything but tomato sauce. The answer, I think, is that it's important to broaden the horizons of one's taste buds.... The mind is in their neighborhood, after all. New menus can lead to new friends and nurture undeveloped talents (in my quest for a personal basil supply, I've found that I have a bit of a green thumb after all).
It is good, too, to realize that, what looks suspect at first glance, may hold unforeseen promise a manifesto truly worthy of pesto.