It is December 1997, I am 11 years old, and the Nintendo 64 console was the only thing on our wish list.
My sister and I spent the whole winter break that year with our dad, and he was determined to make it special. He found an enormous tree that stretched all the way to our vaulted ceiling, and we covered it in lights and candy canes and silver baubles. We spent our evenings stoking fires and watching movies together, passing a tin of flavored popcorn across our laps, our little legs propped up on the back of the giant dog snoring at our feet (we miss you, Bobo).
When the day finally arrived for us to open presents, we were thrilled to find our gaming system waiting for us under the tree. We spent that whole day in our flannel nightgowns, laughing and playing games with our dad on the living room floor.
It is one of the happiest memories of my childhood, and it smells like pesto.
Our dad is a tinkerer. Sometimes an engineer, sometimes a carpenter, often a mechanic. That year he was experimenting with indoor gardening and had chosen basil as his tester crop. For months the fragrant leaves perfumed our entire home, permeating our clothes and hair, following us wherever we went.
His garden did so well that we ended up with pounds of basil to use, and his solution was to make vast quantities of pesto that he froze in bags and stacked in our freezer.
It was delicious and convenient, and for a few months was a twin obsession, so we asked for it on spaghetti with a Caesar salad for dinner.
Ever since that year, pesto has reminded me of Christmastime and my dad. The smell of basil and pine nuts conjures images of racing games and candy wrappers, the sounds of giggles and teasing and cheers, and the thump-thump of our dog’s tail wagging lazily against the floor.
Pesto is quick, easy, and versatile, but you’ll need a food processor (preferably with a small bowl attachment) or a mortar and pestle to make it.
2 cups fresh basil
2 garlic cloves
1/3 cup olive oil
2/3 cup shredded parmesan
¼ cup raw pine nuts
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Put half of your basil, the garlic, pine nuts, half of the Parmesan, and a few tablespoons of the olive oil into the small bowl of your food processor and blend until smooth.
Scrape the sides and add the other half of the basil and Parmesan.
While the processor is running, slowly drizzle the rest of the olive oil into the paste and continue blending until the texture is totally smooth and homogenous.
Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
To serve: Boil your pasta according to the instructions, strain and mix in the cold pesto until the pasta is completely coated.
It is important not to cook the pesto, or it will “break” — the oil will separate out — and you will have a clumpy oil slick instead of a smooth sauce.
Try it as a sandwich spread, salad dressing, or on top of baked chicken or salmon.