The first time I had pesto was in 1978 in Florence, Italy. I was studying with cooking teacher Giuliano Bugialli, whose book “The Fine Art of Italian Cooking” (1977), informed my personal cooking style forever. My outlook on seasonality and simplicity was born that summer — the summer of ’78 as I remember it — when I was chef to New York Mayor Ed Koch and lived at Gracie Mansion with Hizzoner. It was the soft breeze that came through the windowed kitchen door on Guiliano’s terrace that transfixed me silently and totally. Overlooking an elegant side street in Florence, the perfume of basil wafted into the part of my brain that would, from then on, trigger memories of my collective trips to that town — a “living museum” as I called it then. I was 24 and although I had traveled to Italy, France, Norway and other ports of call, it was the collision of food and culture, art and history made edible, that enamored me.
I remember loving the protocol of an Italian meal, how boiled things were served with boiled things, and fried foods with other fried foods. That you never changed the order of a meal, and that sitting down to eat was a cultural institution as important as almost any other. I was struck with the orderliness and logic of pairing certain pasta shapes with particular sauces, and how differently fresh pasta was treated from dried pasta. I loved learning that good canned tomatoes were the sine qua non of the Italian pantry and that one opted for lusty dried oregano instead of fresh.
But this morning I’m remembering pesto — because the smell of fresh basil is wafting through my kitchen window as a morning offering from my window box. I also look forward to walking the Union Square market this morning (after all, it’s Wednesday) and thinking of that special time in my culinary journey. I will remember drying freshly-made pasta over a broom handle that teetered upon two facing chairs, I will remember the slices of simply-fried eggplant splashed with vinegar and dotted with chopped garlic and that dreamy basil, I will remember the roast duck stuffed with pancetta, sage and juniper — that is equally nice, I might add, made with basil. And of course, there was pasta al pesto whenever you chose. Moving into my own world of radical simplicity, this week I will slice fresh peaches, splash them with peach schnapps and stir in a bit of julienned basil; I will make scrubbed toast — and grill thick slices of peasant bread, rub them with a cut clove of garlic, and a fistful of basil leaves that I will scrape along the nubby texture. A drizzle of olive oil, coarse salt, and presto! — the herbal equivalent of the tomato-scrubbed bread one would find in Barcelona. And I will do the same with ears of simply boiled corn, rub it with basil until perfumed and slightly green. A little melted butter and…
Buy some basil. Create some memories of your own.