In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open August 1st, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we were stewing in teenage angst while mom burned the pot roast or, as is the case with this entry from LPR’s own Laura Shovan, falling in love with a new family and food together, we can call on the sounds, smells, and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Laura’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can cook yourself through an experience yourself. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.
And now that I’ve laid the table, LPR Poetry Editor, Laura Shovan:
Every year, my mother-in-law says the same thing.
“Pesto tastes of summer.”
She’s right. The basil leaves that give body and color to this light, green pasta sauce are so easy to grow, they’re found in even the most basic summer vegetable gardens.
For pesto and me, it was not love at first sight.
I was seventeen years old. I’d grown up in a house where Italian food was pizza, frozen lasagna, and pasta with sauce. RED sauce.
My British mother had a few recipes we all loved: her hearty beef stew, a traditional shepherd’s pie dish she’d brought with her to the U.S. On busy days, though, it was egg noodles with tuna, mayo, and frozen peas for dinner. If my brothers and I were lucky, we had Swanson TV Dinners. My favorite was the Hungry Man dinner that came with a square brownie.
My mother grew up in post WWII Britain. Food rationing made ingredients scarce. You ate what was in front of you and liked it. That’s how she’d learned to cook, so that’s how she cooked. And I did like it.
Until I met this guy. I was sixteen, a junior. He was a senior at a different high school. It was love at first sight. Rob is an only child and was, at the time, an only grandchild – an oddity in his big, extended family. I found myself adopted by his mother, Linda, and his grandmother, the matriarch of their Italian family, Rose.
Three-generation Sunday dinners were mandatory affairs. It was at one of these meals that I was introduced to pesto sauce. Green. On pasta. It just looked wrong.
But Rob and I had been dating a few months by that summer. I was in love. To say I was willing to try a strange-looking, garlicky dish doesn’t capture my feelings. I was in love with Rob, in love with how readily his family had accepted me, and in love with food for the first time in my life.
No exaggeration. Every dish that passed through Rose and Linda’s kitchens was delicious. Simple fried chicken cutlets for lunch. American recipes like pot roast. Hamburgers on the grill. It didn’t matter. I was learning that when you pay attention to the food you prepare, it repays the favor by tasting amazing.
So, the pesto. Just a few dollops of what looked to me like green mayonnaise on a pound of rotini cooked al dente. Yes, I was learning that pastas have names – this is the curly kind. It traps the bits of pignoli nuts and parmesan in the sauce best. With each bite, there is a perfect combination of basil, cheese, nuts, and garlic.
Pesto sauce can be served as a spread on thick slices of toasted Italian bread or French baguette. On pasta, it’s a great side dish for grilled chicken. Slather it over a nice piece of salmon and bake it to your liking.
Rob and I celebrate our 23rd anniversary this summer. He’s the cook in the family. My kitchen specialties are soups made with homemade stock and baked sweets. But I was brave enough to come up with my own pesto. When we served it to Linda, she asked for the recipe.
Pesto Sauce for Pasta
- 2 cups firmly packed fresh basil leaves
- 2 tbsp. to ½ cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
- ¼ cup pine (pignoli) nuts or walnuts
- 2+ cloves of garlic
- ½ cup to 1 cup olive oil
- ½ tsp. salt
Use a blender or food processor. Combine all ingredients except oil. Blend or process with on-off turns until a paste forms or ingredients are chopped small. Gradually add oil and blend/add until sauce has the consistency of soft butter. (If the oil separates, add more of the other ingredients.) Makes three portions. Can be frozen up to one month.
Note: Stale pignoli nuts have a bitter after taste. Before adding this ingredient to your pesto, do a taste-test. The flavor should be slightly nutty, slightly sweet.
Laura Shovan is Poetry Editor of Little Patuxent Review. She will be publishing a novel-in-verse, The Last Fifth Grade Of Emereson Elementary, with Random House Children and keeps a blog about children’s literature and education at Author Amok. Laura was a finalist for the 2012 Rita Dove Poetry Award. Her chapbook Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. She edited Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems (MWA Books) and Voices Fly: Exercises and Poems from the Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Residence Program, for which she teaches.