Pesto not my besto …
If it weren’t for my friend Abby, I would never have tried to make pesto. But Abby, an excellent cook, makes everything look easy. So I thought I would try to reproduce her Pesto and Pine Nut Pasta.
I decided to do this even though I had no experience with basil, usually steer clear of green food (no green eggs and ham, thank you), and refused to spend the money on pine nuts. I figured I could substitute sunflower seeds. They look alike to me.
It would have been wiser if I had left the pesto to Abby and our other similarly talented friends, but when I saw fresh basil at the Farmer’s Market one morning in June, I suddenly saw myself expertly whipping up a batch up pesto in the kitchen, serving it chilled with angel hair pasta to a group of admiring friends, and saying humbly as they praised my work, “Oh, it’s just a little recipe I picked up from Abby … she’s the real cook, you know.”
Well, that part is true. Abby can make the pesto, and I should leave it completely alone until I take an appropriate related cooking course somewhere in town and receive full step-by-step instruction in the art of the basics of basil. Because if my first attempt at making pesto is any indication, I’m not ready yet.
I can’t get it out of my head even now. I didn’t know pesto could be so messy. The green goo, the olive oil everywhere—it took so long to wash that slippery substance off of my utensils, out of the blender, off my hands. Like Lady Macbeth before me, I think I stood there, muttering “Out, out!” my hands stretched out from my body, disgusting, frightening, and sad.
Like her, I was helpless to heal what I had done.
When I try to think about it calmly, I see that I made a couple of mistakes.
First, when I realized that I had only a mini food processor in which to blend an entire batch of pesto, I could have halved the recipe. I could have divided the ingredients into two halves, mixed them separately, and then poured them together. I could even have blended one or two ingredients at a time.
But no, I crammed everything—everything—into my tiny food processor. It fit. Just. I had to mash the basic down with my hands. I had a moment of clenched jaws as I poured in the olive oil, the sunflower seeds, the other ingredients, and saw what a tight fit it was going to be. But when I was able to cram the lid on, I thought I had escaped trouble.
I was wrong. When I pressed the Start button on the processor, nothing happened. I tried again. And again. Next I tried removing pinches of ingredients from the processor, dropping them into a separate bowl and trying to work the processor again with less inside it. But it was still so full that it wouldn’t work.
I began to panic and pressed the button harder. At this point, a piece of plastic flew out from the center of the processor and was quickly slimed by olive oil and lost in the basil leaves. I fished out the piece of plastic and thought, “This can’t be good.”
Obviously I couldn’t keep on going as I was. I transferred the gummy, bruised leaves and dripping oil and all into a bowl, tried unsuccessfully, to clean my hands, and pulled out my rarely used blender. I knew it would be hard to clean, but it had to work. And it did. Using the blender, I produced a batch of normal-looking pesto in moments.
I looked at the pesto in the blender. I began to think that perhaps things would turn out well after all. It was going to take a while to clean the blender, and I had dirtied a fair number of dishes and covered every surface in sight with a blend of green gunky mess, sunflower seeds, and costly oil, but I had pesto.
I moved forward with preparing the pasta. I think that at this point it might have been wiser to refrigerate the pesto and think carefully about my next moves, but that is not what I did. Instead, trying to put this entire incident behind me, I cooked up a bunch of angel hair pasta—stopping at one point to call Abby and ask a question, but she wasn’t home—drained the finished pasta, and mixed in the pesto. Then I stopped to survey my creation.
Was it supposed to be so green? I wondered. It was really, really green. I didn’t remember Abby’s pasta being quite so green.
I sniffed the dish. My nose wrinkled a little. Then I took a bite.
Something was—pungent. I thought I knew what it was. While the pine nuts in Abby’s salad just belonged—were unremarkable, in a way, because they blended—the sunflower seeds were very noticeably present. And, as I said—to put it nicely—pungent.
I had only one hope left. I covered the dish with plastic wrap and threw it in the fridge. It would probably look better … and smell and taste better … after it was chilled.
And then, after cleaning what I could, I left the house on some errand, escaping the scene of the crime.
When I returned home, my husband greeted me in the kitchen. “Abby called,” he said. “She says to use 16 ounces of pasta.”
I had used 8 ounces.
“Oh, that’s okay,” I said, airily. “I already finished the pasta—I couldn’t wait. And anyway, I didn’t mix in all of the pesto.”
Which is true, but I had used almost all of it, on half the amount of recommended pasta. That certainly explained the extreme greenness of the pasta sitting in my refrigerator.
I asked my husband to take a taste. He did. Then said nothing and walked away.
“What did you think?” I asked.
“I’m not crazy about pesto,” he said. “I’m no judge.”
I cocked my head and looked sideways at the pasta. I imagine, I thought, that if you liked pesto, this wouldn’t look so green.
And probably you’d think the sunflower seeds added a really nice flavor.
Hoping this was true, I bravely took my Pesto and Pine Nuts Pasta to a church potluck picnic that night. But I knew I was in trouble when I saw that we had arrived late and everyone already had full plates. I had a sinking suspicion that unless my dish were placed in front of a line of very hungry people, no one was going to try it. I knew, somehow, that no one who was already full was going to take a serving of that pasta.
And I was right. I took the bowl home with me that night, completely full. I set it on the counter. And I made a decision. I dumped the entire lump of green pasta into the trashcan, and I took my serving bowl to the sink and washed always the traces of the pesto that would, I knew, haunt me in days to come.
Remember the pesto, will come the whisper.
You know what I think? I don’t even think they should let me buy basil at the market. The old man who sold it to me that pleasant June morning should have been accompanied by a wise-looking, wrinkled farming wife with graying hair in a bun who would have said sternly, “Young woman, do you know what you’re going to do with that basil when you get it home?”
Because I didn’t know. Although, to be honest, I probably would have claimed, offended, that I did know what I was doing. Sometimes I can be just a frightful liar—or downright delusional.
And that is probably why there is a small bag of frozen pesto, the bit I didn’t throw in the pasta, waiting deep in my freezer. Because I still want to be Abby.
And, Lord help us all, I continue to try.