Thursday, June 5, 2008
What a nice moment. I had to run out to the parking garage today around lunchtime to retrieve a file that I'd forgotten in my car. This trivial errand turned into an unexpected blast from the past when I stepped on the empty elevator.
Warm, nutty basil pesto. Mozzarella and artichoke hearts. Halved grape tomatoes.
The aroma of some unknown person's lunch had filled the elevator. In seconds, I was lost in a memory. It was the special dish that I asked my mother to serve at my graduation luncheon, right before I received my high school diploma. The first dish in which I experienced real mozzarella and fresh basil pesto. The feeling of sophistication, the idea that I was turning into an adult. The pretty iced tea glasses next to my mom's china and silver on the table. The white linen napkins.
For a few moments, I was no longer a worker bee in my office building; I was a teenager in flip flops. I leaned against the wall of the elevator, remembering the meal, remembering being a lot younger.
I've written once before about scent and its link to memory. Having been transported for those few seconds, I simply had to recreate the recipe for a dish that I had not eaten in ten years.
The results take me back. The taste of fresh basil pesto, paired with soft mozzarella and crisp grape tomatoes may not stand for sophistication in your mind, but for me, tasting this dish as a teenager was special. I learned something about food by eating this. And by recreating it so many years later, I was able to taste a little bit of my own personal history and once again appreciate what I'd loved about the dish from the beginning: the beauty of simple, fresh flavors.
What special meal takes you back? Don't be shy, tell me!
Summer Basil Pesto Pasta
1/2 pound rotini pasta
1/2 pound ball of mozzarella packed in water
16-20 asparagus spears, the tips only plus one inch of the stalk
1/2 pint of grape tomatoes
1 14-oz can of artichoke hearts packed in water, rinsed)
2 packs cups of basil leaves, plus 1/2 cup of basil leaves, cut chiffonade
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/8 cup Parmigiano Reggiano
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, then add the pasta. Cook until al dente, then drain and rinse the pasta with cold water. In another pot, steam the asparagus tips over an inch of boiling water for 2 minutes, then drain and rinse the asparagus with cool water to stop the cooking process.
When the pasta and asparagus are well-drained, add them to a large serving bowl. Cube the mozzarella roughly into bite-sized pieces, and add to the bowl. Rinse the grape tomatoes and cut them in half, adding the halves to the serving bowl as you go. Add the artichoke hearts.
In a food processor, blend the 2 cups of basil leaves, the pine nuts, and the Parmigiano Reggiano until they form a coarse paste. With the machine still on, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. The pesto should still be a thick paste, unless you prefer yours to have more oil and be looser.
Toss the contents of the serving bowl with the pesto until well-coated. Sprinkle the basil chiffonade over the top. Serve the dish at room temperature, with iced tea.