It’s August, and the blackberries are ripe. That pie in the oven is distracting you from the monthly newspaper. Gardens are ascending to the peak of their harvest season, and there are fresh vegetables on the dinner table.
We’re enjoying the brief weeks of picking basil leaves for pesto, that classic Italian sauce. Basil is the main ingredient, and for a while our gardens and greenhouses are producing lots of it.
Pesto’s original home is Genoa. Ligurian pride as the homeland of pesto comes with a defensive orthodoxy about its correct ingredients and preparation. Obsessively local even: Genoese food purists will insist that authentic pesto must be made with basil from the terraces of the Pra’ hillside, olive oil from Taggiasca, garlic from the village of Vessalico and sea salt from the Ligurian Sea. Traditionalists specify further that you may only mash the basil leaves in a marble mortar with an olive-wood pestle made by local craftsmen, of course.
Add a pinch of conflicting recipes based on family traditions, spiced with debates about which cheeses are acceptable, and a dash of dispute about what pasta to serve. Was it trofie or tortiglioni?
Just as most of you have learned not to argue theology with the nice folks who come knocking on your door, you don’t argue with an Italian about how to make authentic pesto — except perhaps to fine-tune your colloquial Italian or to pick up some new emphatic gestures.
Readers of a certain age can still remember an America that had no brewpubs and fortified wine in only pocket-sized bottles, a land of no yogurt and no granola. Our children can hardly believe that once upon a time in America, there were no mocha frappuccinos.
Before the late ’70s, pesto sounded more like a mispronunciation than something edible.
Back then, you couldn’t buy basil at the supermarket, so the first recipes for pesto offered the more hopeful than helpful suggestion that you look for basil at an Italian grocery in your city’s Little Italy. In days of yore, since Seattle’s Garlic Gulch was 60 miles away, folks on the peninsula who had an un-American appetite for pesto had to grow basil in their gardens.
And then all the college students who’d hitchhiked around Europe in the ’60s came home with a taste for foreign flavors and Volvos. Next thing you know, America had espresso coffee and Chablis. Quiche, baguettes, brie, croissants, biscotti, pancetta, Gauloises cigarettes, and Toblerone all appeared like mushrooms in November. Suddenly, pesto recipes were featured in best-selling cookbooks, and basil appeared in the produce section of grocery stores everywhere, even if not at Walt’s Fine Foods.
Here on the Key Peninsula, we have our own almost local connection to the history of American pesto.
The favorite son of nearby McCleary, Angelo Pellegrini, wrote the very first pesto recipe to appear in print in the U.S. His casually vague recipe in the September 1946 issue of Sunset Magazine was very simple. Just mince basil leaves with chopped pine nuts and put them in a large mixing bowl with olive oil. Add grated Parmesan cheese and mix thoroughly until the mixture is as dry as sawdust. No quantities, no persnickety techniques.
Pellegrini was born in a Tuscan village in 1904 and came to McCleary with his family as a 9-year-old monolingual Italian. He mastered English, and young Angelo won an academic scholarship to the University of Washington. After a doctorate, he returned to an English professor’s chair in Seattle.
At the urging of dinner guests who’d enjoyed his cooking, Pellegrini began writing about food. His first book, “The Unprejudiced Palate,” was published in 1948 and has never been out of print. The book has been elevated by foodies to classic status in the history of modern American cooking.
Pellegrini was revolutionary in post-war America because his writing is straightforward, epicurean philosophy: eat fresh, simply prepared food that tastes good. By necessity, he was a do-it-yourselfer, making his own wine from California grapes in the basement and keeping a year-round vegetable garden at his Seattle home instead of a lawn. Despite 75 years of progress in agriculture and grocery supply chains, his principle that “without a kitchen garden it is not possible to produce decent and savory food for the dinner table,” is still regrettably and mostly true.
Pellegrini was “a slow food voice in a fast-food nation.”
In making your pesto this August, avoid old garlic, pizza-parlor Parmesan and industrial lubricant-grade olive oil. Pesto will only be as good as the quality of its ingredients, and you just can’t do any better than basil straight from your garden.
2 to 3 cups of basil leaves
Italian parsley (to taste)
¼ cup pine nuts, raw or toasted
1 small head of garlic, chopped to the size of the pine nuts
½ cup (or more to taste) of good olive oil
Pinch of good salt
Grated Parmesan (to taste)
Put a few leaves of basil (optionally, some parsley), garlic, salt, and a few pine nuts into a blender, food processor, or mortar and pestle.
Blend the ingredients, adding basil leaves, moistening with olive oil, until you have a thick sauce.
Add Parmesan to finish and serve on pasta like fusilli with a complicated shape that holds the pesto.
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS