"You don't need to tear the leaves or anything before you put them in the food processor," Michael explained while I was snapping a picture of his hands submerged in a sinkful of water. "Oh, and tell them not to add the butter if they're going to freeze it." I can't tell you how unusual it is for him to be pedantic, and how hard it is to stifle laughter over his basil-scented bossiness. "Also, the original Marcella Hazan recipe calls for two tablespoons of pine nuts, but I use three." I couldn't take it anymore. "Honey, you use three because that's what I do, and I'm the one who actually taught you how to make pesto, Mr. Pesto-making Pesto Head." "Oh," he said, and looked up from the sink. "Okay. Well then tell them about the summer I picked so much basil that I gave myself carpal tunnel syndrome." It's true: he did.
Come July, Michael gets into what can only be described as a pesto-making frenzy, all flailing limbs and ghoulish black-green fingernails and wafting garlic. At our farm-share CSA, the basil-picking policy is "as much as you need." And he needs a lot. The squirrels are outside with cheeks full of birdseed and acorns, thinking ahead to snow and their cozy burrows, and Michael is inside obsessively scooping pesto into yogurt containers and freezing it. Only when he has a giant Ziploc bag full of the frozen green pucks will he rest easy, with visions of a long winter full of pesto pasta and pesto pizza and pesto scrambled eggs.
Which is when I have to say: Ew. Not to alarm you about the depth of conflict in our relationship, but if there is one thing that grosses me out, and there is, it is pesto scrambled eggs. And this is where things get complicated for us, because what I have with pesto could best be described as a love-hate relationship that dates back to my pregnancy with Birdy. Back when she was the size of a grain of sand or a grain of rice or a pinto bean or a jelly bean or a green bean, the smell of garlic was like something from a George Orwell futuristic vision of torture. Other folks would have been in their cages with the rats or underground with the snakes and blackboard fingernails, and I would have been sitting at my own kitchen table, screaming, while somebody pressed cloves of garlic through a press. And that somebody would have been Michael, who mistakenly imagined that the only problem I'd have would be with eating the pesto, not with him making it. Did you catch the word "mistakenly" back there? I know. Because one night of my early pregnancy, Michael made pesto, and I will spare you the details (suffice it to say: barfing occurred) and the aftermath (I had to take our kitchen sink apart to get, barfingly, at the garlic fragments that were still tormenting me from the garbage disposal), but let me just say: I barely recovered from it. Thenceforth, even the way it looked (so green! so pastey!) revolted me, and I don't think I could bring myself to taste it again until Birdy was already riding a bike with training wheels.
How crazy is that? Me, who had been one of the all-time major devotees of pesto, worshipping at its green and fragrant altar. And even now. I just don't know. My kids love pesto almost as much as their dad does, so we eat it a lot. And about three quarters of the time I love it too: the deep clovey-herbal flavor of the basil, alongside the musky garlic and rich olive oil and funky parmesan. Yowza. I made myself love it just writing that. It is so, so good, and this recipe puts store-bought pesto so badly to shame that you should make it only if you're going to commit to continuing to make it. Assuming you're not pregnant. Or that there's not 25% of you that still imagines that you are.
Makes enough to sauce 2 pounds of pasta
Total time: 25 minutes
This is based on a Marcella Hazan pesto recipe. Michael freezes the pesto in small amounts so that we can thaw just what we need: one quarter batch (1 puck) will dress about a half a pound of pasta. The basil will oxidize and turn a little bit dark after freezing, but it doesn't seem to affect the flavor.
1 very large bunch basil (enough to make 2 packed cups of leaves)
3 tablespoons pine nuts (we use the toasted ones from Trader Joe's)
2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup freshly ground parmesan (omit for now if freezing)
3 tablespoons softened butter (omit for now if freezing)
Fill a large sink with water and rinse the basil well, then pull of the leaves, spin dry in a salad spinner, and measure out 2 packed cups (if you’re a little short, don’t worry too much).
In a food processor, whir together the basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt. Then, with the machine running, drizzle the olive oil through the feed tube and process until completely creamy-looking.
If you’re using the pesto now, stir in the cheese and butter, but if you’re freezing it, don’t. To use it, put the pesto in a large serving bowl and stir in a couple of tablespoons of pasta-cooking water, then stir in the drained pasta and serve with more cheese for passing.
If you're freezing it, divide the pesto into four small plastic containers (we use empty yogurt containers) and freeze solid, then pop the pesto out of the containers and store in a Ziploc freezer bag onto which you’ve added this note: “Thaw, then add a couple tablespoons of pasta cooking water along with 1 tablespoon of butter and lots of freshly ground parmesan before stirring into pasta.”