Monday, September 12, 2011

How To Make Pesto, Family Style

{ Scroll down for the recipe. }

Me & Bunny
I learned how to make pesto from a woman named Bunny. She's a cool ol' broad who built a log cabin with her own two hands and makes biscuits by putting her hips into it. She's tough as nails and warm like butter, and she's left a mark on my kitchen that goes deeper than the kitchen sink.

She tasted my mid-made pesto, and from over her shoulder gruffed simply, "More garlic," in her leftover east coast accent. Ok, I thought. Right. More garlic. But first I quietly tasted it myself to see if I could get what she got, if I could taste what she did and be able to name what was missing without missing a beat.

We were having about 25 people over to our little apartment for a big family dinner, including Gary Danko (yes, that Gary Danko) to celebrate the life of Bunny's son Chris, who after two weeks of lying in a deep sleep, and 35 years before that of giving this world his funny, unique and wholly honest breath, passed away, leaving us to ourselves and our food. We had held vigil in his hospital room for those weeks laughing, crying and hoping, and coming home each night to my kitchen, something that will never be less than amazing to me.

Chris worked with Gary at his restaurant in San Francisco, and over the years Gary got sucked into this wonderful family, just like me. He slid into my kitchen and quietly stood hip-to-hip with Bunny, each of them getting to work on getting through this. Even then the 24-yr old me knew that Gary. Danko. Is. Making. A. Rue. In. My. Kitchen., but looking back on it, what's seared into my memory is how we were all the same level of human in that moment, brought together by a very special guy named Chris and the food that would nourish our bodies to keep us going.

Although my Beginner's Bunny Pesto certainly wasn't the focus at the table that night, I've made it a million times since then. Each and every time, it's never lost on me where and when I learned how to taste the food I'm making and know instinctively when it needs more garlic.

Bunny's Pesto
When baking Bunny measures like a scientist, but when cooking at the stove, eyeballing it is the only way to go. It's an art form that applies to this recipe. Maybe the lack of exact measurements will encourage you to "just go with it," and not want to crack under the anxiety like I did the first few times. When in doubt, always start with less and add more to taste.

A couple of bunches of fresh basil
1-2 lemons, zest & juice (start with one and add more if needed.)
1-2 Garlic cloves chopped, you be the judge
About 1/2 cup toasted nuts - walnuts & pine nuts are my favorites
About 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, Asiago or Romano cheese
E.V. Olive Oil - use the good stuff for this since it's not cooked.
Kosher salt & fresh cracked pepper
  1. Start by toasting the nuts. I use a small cast iron skillet and hover smotheringly, otherwise I WILL burn them.
  2. In a food processor (or blender) add the basil, lemon zest and juice of one lemon, garlic, nuts, cheese, salt and pepper. 
It will look kinda like this:

      3. Start blending, and drizzle in the olive oil through the lid until it comes together like this.

      4. Taste it. It should have a fragrant basil aroma, a subtle garlic spice and a bold acidity from the lemons. If all you taste is lemon, then you need more salt. Add a touch more and blend. If it's bland, then add more lemon juice. Dance around with the salt, lemon juice, garlic and parmesan until you get to the good stuff: A zesty, aromatic, tangy pesto.

And then do this:

Cheese Tortellini with Sauteed Chicken, Kale and Heirloom Tomatoes

And this:

And then with the leftover pesto sauce, do this:

Take it to your friend's house, and they'll send you this:

Photo by my buddy Peter Campbell

What are your most vivid memories of learning to cook?

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