While teaching my class today we wandered a bit off track and wound up taking about food and the psychology behind it. It’s something that interests me on so many levels. Food is something that, for many people, connects them to their families, their cultures and their heritage. Food can be a comfort, it can bring back memories of a loved one and it can help to soothe and organize us (don’t believe me? If you’re feeling anxious about something, eat some raw carrots or chew gum. The chewing helps to release chemicals that calm and organize your brain.). Some foods can elevate our moods (chocolate is one) and some can help us change our moods (drinking warm milk to help induce feeling sleepy and calm.). The psychology and physiology behind all of it is just fascinating. I’m sure there are several dissertation and book topics in there. You know, in my spare time.
For me, one memory that is intrinsically linked to food (and I have many) is Christmas Eve and Basil Pesto. For a zillion years, I have spent Christmas Eve with my best friend from second grade and her large, loving, loud Italian family. They serve the same dishes every year: baked shrimp, shrimp cocktail, homemade fresh pasta, basil pesto and tomato sauce. Sometimes there’s salad or a few other contenders and there are always several varieties of Italian cookies (including the ones with pine nuts, mmmm), cakes and other sweets. The guest list shifts, expanding and contracting but the tables always reach out of the dining room and into the hallway. The dinner goes on for hours and is accompanied by laughter and loud voices. Lots of teasing- the people who attend are generally related to one another or have known each other so long that it feels like they’re related- and joking and by the end of the night, my mouth aches from my smile and my stomach is stretched to its limit.
It’s funny because most people I know associate pesto with summer. Basil is in abundant supply in the summer and it goes well with so many “summer” meals- sandwiches, over fish, as a spread or dip and, of course, with pasta. Until I started Christmas with my friend’s family, I wasn’t really aware that you could make pesto. But make it you can, and pretty easily too. Since my wonderful friend K. gave me my own personal herb garden for my birthday and included a great deal of basil in it, a few days ago I decided to make my very own Summer Winter Pasta. It was delicious and after I ate, I called my friend to have a quick catch up. It didn’t feel right to be eating pesto without her.
Summer Winter Pasta
1/2 box dried pasta (I’m too lazy to make my own) or fresh (which will cook much more quickly, so adjust for that)
2 cups slightly packed basil leaves (i.e. lots of basil)
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
2/3 cup olive oil
salt, pepper to taste
1/2 c. grated parmesan cheese
Put a big pot of water on to boil. Add salt. Remember this is your only chance to season the pasta so put lots of salt in there.
Toast your pine nuts. Be careful, as they will cross the line from toasted to burned very quickly. You can toast them in a dry pan over medium heat or you can put them on a cookie sheet in the oven at about 350. Again, watch them closely. And lest you think I never make kitchen mistakes, here’s my first batch (which I did not watch closely):
One side too burned, the other side too raw. So I chucked them and started over.
Once your pine nuts are nicely toasted, throw them into the food processor, along with the garlic and basil. Whir it around until it’s all nicely minced.
Add some olive oil while the processor is going. You may not want the whole 2/3 of a cup. I leave that to you. It will make a bit of a paste. Scrape down the sides and then add the cheese and whir again to combine.
I will admit two things about the cheese. I grind it in the food processor rather than grating by hand. I’m lazy like that. I also tend to use more than the 1/2 cup. What can I say? I love cheese. Scrape down the sides and whir one more time to ensure that it’s all combined. Taste and add salt and pepper to your liking.
My pesto tends to be on the thick side which I prefer. I thin it out with some of the pasta water. You do know about the magic of pasta water, don’t you? Speaking of which, if your water is now boiling add your pasta.
Scrape the pesto into a bowl and set aside while your pasta cooks.
Once the pasta is cooked, drain (but reserve some of the water!) and return it to the pot. Add as much pesto as you like and stir to coat the pasta.
The heat from the pasta and the pot will melt the cheese and warm up the pesto in the best way. If it’s too thick, add some of the reserved pasta water to thin it out- I used about two tablespoons.
I serve mine with an extra sprinkle of cheese (again, I love cheese. love it.)
As you eat, think of both warm, sunny, summer days and cold, frosty, family-filled winter nights. Enjoy the contrast. Consider yourself blessed to be able to have both.