There are so many ways to measure a child. Pencil ticks in a doorframe. Year in school. The melting away of baby legs, the sudden appearance of cheekbones. Pounds, percentiles, consumption of pesto pops. Maybe that last one's just Henry.
Ever since we planted our basil starts in early June, Henry's been asking after pesto. Or rather, after "those green frozen cubes I like soooo much." We'd made a big batch last summer, he and I, whizzing two huge bundles of farmer's market basil together with all the usual suspects. At the time, I thought he was only along for the action-adventure, the thrill of turning solid to liquid in zero-to-60 with the push of a button. He stuck around, though, stuck a spoon into the pungent green paste, and licked it clean. And then he went back for more.
Henry's always been one our more adventurous eaters, but still. Watching him slurp pesto like yogurt surprised even me. We served some fresh over fettucine that night, which didn't interest him one wit. He likes his pasta like he likes his pesto: straight-up. The rest we tucked into ice cube trays, a nifty trick I remembered from the eighties, when shoulders were padded and Prince was not yet The Artist Formerly Known As and all the women whose babies I sat were mad for that exotic Eye-talian green sauce and this so-clever way of keeping it.
All fall, we tapped into our stash, Henry and I. I adored the way pesto's fragrant, saturated punch could transform a mild-mannered dish. Like pixie dust, only edible. Swirled through soft-scrambled eggs, it was dreamy. (Secretly? I believe this is what Sam I Am was stumping for.) Stirred into snowy whole-milk ricotta, it turned last night's leftover crepes and last summer's tomato sauce into almost-instant manicotti. But plopped, still-frozen, into soup, pesto found its calling, at least in my kitchen.
We eat vegetable soup of one kind or another all winter long. White bean, potato-leek, all manner of minestrone, it doesn't much matter. Every last one is improved by an army-green iceberg. It brings the temperature down from burning-hot to piping, which is nice. It also transforms something homey and comfortable into a glorious pre-Edison parlor.
Bear with me.
Have you ever lit a candle in a perfectly dark room? Not to add mood or a suave eucalyptus-lemongrass scent, but simply to toy with the pitch black? Have you watched the way that solitary flame suddenly throws the entire space into bas relief? How the warm buttery glow lends every curve of a table's leg, each nip and tuck of the baseboards, incredible depth and a haunting character all out of proportion to that tiniest of fires? So it is with pesto and plain old soup.
Henry liked none of this.
Food, touching. No need to dwell.
What Henry adored was eating pure pesto cubes, unsullied and straight from the freezer. At first, I thought it was the novelty. Then, nostalgia. Then, a strange chlorophyll-starved wrinkle in his tastebuds. But by Christmas we were getting a lttle competitive, grabby even, as we both eyed our dwindling supply. And then it was gone.
So we'd dreamed of another batch for some time. We knew we'd need to wait six months or more. We'd no idea our next pesto session would happen 2,452 miles away, in a 70-year-old kitchen still new to us, with basil grown in our own backyard. Let's just pause here. Consider the gravity of what I just said.
WE GREW BASIL. IN OUR BACKYARD.
There've been a lot of changes this past year, but this just might be the biggest jaw-dropper. I've planted basil before. But grown would be overreaching. 'To grow' is a generous verb, loaded down with definitions. But not one of them includes "watching something wither and wilt and melt into black sludge." For years, I cursed my lack of green thumb and Seattle's maritime climate and our dense clay-posing-as-soil when composting our Slime Formerly Known As Basil. Obviously, all I really needed to do was move to Ohio. Basil loves Ohio. We have basil enough for salads and pastas and sauces and, already, two big batches of pesto.
What we don't have is Henry eating much of the stuff.
Because, after his enormous consumption last year, after all his excitement leading up to P-Day, it seems his tastes haven't quite kept pace with his enthusiasms. That's alright. I'll take falling out of love with pesto as part of the overall upgrade package. Four is a funny year, full of changes so subtle, so sweeping, they often slip under the radar. By four, kids are long-since mobile and verbal and have pretty much mastered the whole homo sapiens shctick. All that's left, really, is civility, manners, respect, empathy, self-discipline, impulse control, Kleenex. Fine-tuning the human being. And independence. Food strikes never make it into the baby book the way first solids do, but it's all part of that magnificent, messy project known as independence. When I look at all Henry has accomplished since our last pesto session, I see such huge strides. He closes doors, clears his place, correctly puts on his own shoes. He can wait twenty-seven entire seconds for Zoë to give back his precious whatever. He's had four shampoos without tears, four, all in a row. He wore swim trunks in the pool. Even after they were wet.
He sleeps through the night.
All this is new. And in my (finally well-rested) opinion, that last one alone entitles him to a few opinions about food. If it takes a pesto détente to notice the change, to measure how far he's come, so be it. Besides, he dries basil like nobody's business.
In the meantime (I'm sure he'll be back, all green-lipped and garlicky), there's always Zoë. Out of the sling and up at the counter, she held her own this year. And although she's been a conservative eater from the get-go, wary of anything strong or spicy or sharp, she plunged right in for a few small bites.
Also, if you're lucky enough to be outside the blight-belt, there's always tomatoes. Turns out tomatoes are my new favorite way to eat pesto in summer. Thinned with olive oil and vinegar, drizzled over thick salted slices of spanking-fresh red flesh, pesto's sublime. It's similar to my old tomato-basil standby (I am so not going to say easy caprese, cross my heart), but somehow both simpler and more sophisticated. It's bright and intense and fresh and decadent and far more flavorful than any five-minute dinner really has any right to be.
Honestly, I don't think I've ever made pesto from a recipe. Or with measuring cups. This isn't because I'm a natural, but because the amount of basil I have on hand never matches up with what's written on the page. It's always seemed easier to make it to taste, adjusting as I go, than to do the math. Two notes: toasting the pine nuts adds an extra, lovely layer of flavor. But it can be skipped. Also, every authority says to leave out the cheese if you plan to freeze the pesto. I'm no authority; I don't trust myself to make another mess later; I always include it at the outset. Due disclosure.
Pesto keeps nicely for 7-10 days in the refrigerator. Drizzle oil on top to prevent oxidization.
2 loosely packed cups fresh basil leaves, washed and well dried
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2-2/3 cup parmesan, freshly grated)
2 garlic cloves, chopped
salt, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 300°. Toast pine nuts 6-10 minutes, shaking and checking to prevent burning.
2. Place basil, half of olive oil, pine nuts, parmesan and chopped garlic in workbowl of food processor. Blitz for 1-2 minutes, pouring remainder of olive oil through feed tube to keep everything moving, until everything is in small bits.
Tomato Pesto Salad:
Thickly slice several fresh tomatoes. Beefsteak's have fallen from grace, unfairly, I think. At a-buck-a-pound at most summer markets, they're a screaming deal. They are nominally the same as the year-round grocery store regulars, but taste exquisite in season, grown around the corner. Truly. Try them. Heirlooms will do in a pinch. (Don't do anything other than dream of this salad between October and June; it's strictly high-summer food.)
Generously salt said tomatoes.
Thin 1/2 cup pesto with oil and vinegar -- start with a Tablespoon of each, and adjust until delicious and pourable.
Drizzle pesto over tomatoes, pull up a nice wheel of cheese and some crusty bread, and call it dinner.