Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Pesto, now in a commanding position with pasta

By Dick Hirsch

I grew up secure in the knowledge that all spaghetti came with tomato sauce. Furthermore, I mastered the spelling of spaghetti, a tricky word, at an early age, well before I had heard the term pasta.

Pasta? What’s pasta? I also was quite familiar with macaroni and could spell that, too, a claim that many of my school classmates couldn’t make. Just as I had the inside information on red spaghetti sauce, I was fully informed about macaroni. It came with cheese, sometimes in the same box.

And just as macaroni was accompanied by cheese and spaghetti came with tomato sauce, there was another relative, the noodle, which most often presented itself in soup, along with some shards of chicken and a few bits of celery and carrots.

I disclose this personal background information as a means of recounting the gustatory simplicity of those days. This reflection began the other evening as I was downing a portion of a thin pasta style---it could have been spaghettini or even angel hair---made with a greenish substance known as pesto. Sometimes when I am eating a meal I especially enjoy I am likely to think back and ask myself a few questions about my relationship with that dish. Did my mother make it? When did I first eat it? Did I always like it?

Pesto? Green? Peculiar pastas? Whoever heard of such deviations from the standards established long ago? None of us had ever heard of pesto. Pesto suddenly materialized and developed a high profile about 20 years ago. After a few tentative tastings, I embraced pesto with increasing enthusiasm, an enthusiasm bordering on fervor.

As I savored that pasta with pesto the other evening, I decided that pesto, in my judgment, now outranks tomato sauce. I say that without qualification, even if the red sauce includes monstrous meatballs. At the same time, I asked myself why I had to wait until I was cruising through middle age to discover the appeal of this remarkable dish.

Why was it a secret for so long? Were our Italian neighbors keeping pesto a secret? If so, why? Just across the street lived my friend Joe Dellapenta, and when I sometimes stood in his driveway waiting for him to answer my call and come outside, I would smell some of the most fabulous cooking aromas emanating from the kitchen window. It sure didn’t smell like anything we had for dinner at our house. I’ll just bet that his mother and plenty of other mothers in our neighborhood and over on the west side were well aware of pesto and were serving batches of pasta mixed with pesto sauce to their families while still withholding the recipe from general use.

(As an aside, I should remind you of the lingering suspicion that they followed a similar scheme with zucchini. Zucchini? What Zucchini? Wasn’t he the famous lion tamer with the circus? We never knew of zucchini until many years later when an elderly gardener on Efner Street bragged about his crop of zucchini, planted from seed. The newspaper printed a picture of him standing in his vegetable patch, ensnared amid the tangle of overrun zucchini vines.

(Along with the photo and a story about the garden, they published a couple of recipes. That was all the publicity that relatively unknown vegetable needed. It emerged from obscurity, catapulted to prominence, and soon people were clamoring for it. It was being grown, harvested, cooked in countless different ways, and enjoyed by the multitudes. The plot of the Italians to keep zucchini as their own secret had inadvertently been foiled.)

The news on pesto is out now, of course, but there is still much to be done if pesto is ever to challenge tomato sauce for leadership. At our house, we grow our own basil, the essential ingredient of pesto. My wife, Lynn, several years ago found a great pesto recipe, and perhaps it tastes even more succulent when you can just walk out the back door, pick some basil leaves, combine it with olive oil and the other ingredients, and quickly produce a quantity of pesto, the native dish of the Genoa area.

I see no reason to include the recipe. There are many sources and I don’t wish to invade the territory of the food writers. One admission I will make that may or may not relate to this topic: I’ve discovered that I always achieve what I believe is a better result when I write on an empty stomach.


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