Monday, September 7, 2015

Pesto al Gusto

I can’t remember the first time I tasted classic pesto, but I do remember it was love at first bite. That heady blend of basil, parmesan, and garlic—with deep base notes of extra virgin olive oil and buttery pine nuts—was intoxicating. It wasn’t long before I was making this fragrant sauce in my own kitchen.

In fact, it’s the main reason I grow basil in my garden. Sure, I love to be able to step outside to gather fresh basil leaves to make a Caprese salad, but this can also be accomplished with some sprigs from the market. Since large quantities of basil are needed to make pesto  (4 packed cups to make 1½ cups of pesto, generally the amount needed for 16 ounces of pasta), it’s most convenient and economical to grow your own, specifically the variety Basilico Genovese. 

Preferably the basil should be young and tender, without any of the bitterness that can come as the plant matures. That being said, I always make a batch this time of year with basil I put in back in late May, and it tastes just fine. Because removing the leaves from the stems is labor intensive and necessary, I like to set aside time to make a big batch all at once and freeze it in individual containers. The sauce keeps well in the freezer and is like a blast of summer in the middle of winter for those of us who live in northern climates.

To harvest basil, I cut the plant way back, stems and all, and fill up a large trash bag. I haul it into my kitchen and instantly the herb’s fragrance fills the space, transforming it into an Italian cucina. Classic pesto originated in northern Italy, in Genoa specifically. I had the good fortune to eat it in its native home several years ago, not far from Genoa.

My family was visiting Italy with my mom, my sister, and her two kids, and that simple but memorable meal was, for me, one of the highlights of trip. We had spent the day hiking the trails of Cinque Terre, 

followed by a swim in the Ligurian Sea. 

By the time we arrived at the restaurant, we were ravenous. When our bowls of pasta were served, we devoured them, washed down with some of the local wine. Whenever I eat pesto pasta now, the memory of that beautiful day resurfaces. One of the best things about food, after all, is the memories it carries.

Categorized as a pounded herb sauce, pesto gets its name from the Italian verb pestare, which means to pound or to crush. Traditionally this was done in a marble mortar using a wooden pestle, but today the modern food processor makes easy work of the process. 

According to custom, the ingredients are blended in a specific order. First the garlic is mashed, followed by the pine nuts, which forms a paste.  Then the basil leaves are added, along with a bit of coarse salt that helps to break down the leaves. Olive oil, the base of so much of Italian cuisine, follows; finally grated Parmigiano Reggiano imparts an incomparable tang and creaminess. Purists would add a little pecorino as well, but it’s not necessary. 

Although simple to make, when pesto is stirred into pasta, slathered on flatbread, or smeared on a sandwich, it’s transformative. I have a hard time thinking of foods that aren’t improved by it. It makes a delicious condiment spooned over grilled chicken, fish, or vegetables, or served with bruschetta or a soft cheese. It jazzes up a cream sauce or mayonnaise, and can even stand alone as a dip. Add a dollop to a salad, tuck it into an omelet, or swirl it into a soup just before serving, as is done with pistou, a nutless Southern French version of pesto. Once you start incorporating pesto into your regular meals, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.

I never tire of classic pesto, but variations on the five main ingredients keep things interesting. You can switch out one ingredient, like using a different nut, for a subtle change. Walnuts are a popular replacement for pine nuts, making the pesto earthier. Almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios are all good options as well.

Another subtle change is to vary the oil, replacing it completely or by half. Since there are so many excellent choices out there, this is an easy way to play around with flavor. I especially like using part walnut oil or a few tablespoons of argan oil for a more pronounced nuttiness. Simply omitting the garlic is another simple, but not so subtle, change, or you can merely dial it down by using garlic chives or scapes instead. If you’re sticking with garlic cloves, makes sure they’re fresh, young cloves, which are less pungent. To lighten the pesto, omit the cheese. This will make the sauce less creamy, and the taste of the oil will be more noticeable.

You can also of course alter the recipe completely, such as making a cilantro-cashew-sesame oil combination; I like to serve this Asian-inspired pesto with grilled fish. Arugula pesto, another favorite, has the benefit of being much less labor intensive than basil pesto since you don’t have to remove the leaves from the stems. It’s also easier to find large quantities of arugula (preferably baby arugula) in the market, and the sauce stays bright green instead of turning dark from oxidizing like basil pesto can. 

Watercress is another alternative to basil, as are mixed herbs, which you can vary according to the season or the dish you’re serving the pesto with. Getting creative with different combinations is one of the beauties of pesto. The only rule I suggest following is to use the highest quality ingredients you can find. 

Even though the official end date of summer is still a couple weeks away, today—Labor Day—always feels like the last day. These final few weeks with their muted colors and touch of coolness in the air are some of my favorite weeks of the year, but they also bring with them a bit of melancholy. It won’t be long before the remaining basil in my garden will be nipped by frost. Knowing I have an ample supply of pesto in my freezer if I need a taste of summer—or of Italy—in the coming months makes this transition easier.


2-3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup pine nuts
4 cups packed basil leaves—preferably Genovese
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
3 tablespoons grated pecorino
coarse sea salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper

Using a food processor, process the garlic and pine nuts. Add the basil, olive oil, and cheese and process until smooth.  Using a spatula, push down any basil on the sides of the bowl. Season with salt and pepper and process for 15 more seconds.

*Pesto keeps for up to 3 days in the refrigerator in an airtight container. To preserve its color, pour olive oil over the surface, or cover it with a small piece of plastic wrap. To freeze, put 1½ cups of pesto in individual containers. Freeze for up to 6 months.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

SNAK Reunion

I recently returned from a special weekend—SNAK Reunion. SNAK as in “Sophomores Needing a Key,” not of the food variety. Let me explain.

Sophomore year of college, four friends and I all requested to live on the same hall but ended up getting a bad draw in the housing lottery. We were placed in a freshman dorm again, subject to all the freshman rules including needing to request an after-hours key if we wanted to enter the dorm past midnight (this was, after all, Wake Forest University in the early 80s). Not to be deterred, we dubbed ourselves SNAK (in part because we did indulge in our share of late night munchies) and proceeded to get around the rules by surreptitiously propping the door open, accessing the dorm through an underground tunnel, or other creative means sometimes involving Minnie Mouse. I need only to pay a visit to my daughter’s college dorm to be reminded of how times have changed.

The SNAK women—Cynthia, Lisa, Sonja, Jennifer, and I— met on our freshman hall and quickly forged a bond in our pursuit of fun, among other things (and academic success too,
 of course). These are women with whom I can say words like hard tack, sheep turd, crusty, lens cap, and shimmy, triggering the same memories and uncontrollable laughter. These are women with whom I not only laughed, but cried, struggled, questioned, and grew.

Although college, alas, came to an end, our friendship has continued, despite our living in different locations spanning Florida to Vermont. One way we have kept in touch is through SNAK gatherings at Cynthia and her husband Tom’s cabin near the NC/VA border in a place known as Wildwood. 

Tom (who also went to Wake) grew up nearby and his great grandfather built the rustic-chic cabin in 1928 as part of a fishing club. Cynthia has added her mark, 

including the 1954 cherry red tractor she inherited from her Granny Ruth. 

SNAK gatherings have happened pretty much every summer at Wildwood over the past twenty years, although I’ve only been able to make it to a couple of them. The last time I went was ten years ago, when the cabin was stuffed full with husbands and children numbering twenty-three people in total.

This year, only three husbands made it, and three kids (Faye, and Cynthia and Tom’s daughters), but a good time was had by all.

We arrived late Friday afternoon, except Lisa who rolled in around midnight having driven up from Florida with characteristic determination. At around 8:15, we realized we hadn’t even thought about making dinner, so caught up we were in conversation. But we pulled it together in less than an hour, thanks to Sonja’s CEO skills (evident in college and now a reality), and enjoyed a delicious salmon dinner. The next morning, Sonja commandeered a kitchen crew at the outdoor stove 

and whipped up a huge Southern breakfast of sausage, eggs, grits, gravy, and biscuits.

Then we were ready to sit for a spell. But not for long. Lisa and I went kayaking, 

some went for a run, and then later all the women made it across the lake to the dock on the other side. Chris and Tom swam across the lake too, and the next generation sunned themselves on the roof of the boathouse. 

Craige (who also happens to have been Chris’s roommate in grad school) relaxed.

For Happy Hour that afternoon, Tom turned over two minnow buckets and placed a board on top for a makeshift table. As tree frogs chirped overhead and the Carolina sun reflected off the lake, I realized how much I miss my friends. At one point Jennifer put on her playlist of heavily funkified dance music from that era and the memories came tumbling back.

The floor plan of the cabin is somewhat like a dorm, especially downstairs where Lisa, Sonja, Jennifer, and I were staying. As we flowed from room to room and shared a common bathroom, I wondered where the past 30 years had gone. Time, as it has a way of doing, had collapsed them. And even though the five of us only lived together for two short years, those years--chockful of new and exciting experiences as they were--seem long and brimming with memories. This is not to discount the 30 intervening years, themselves full with marriage and family, work and living life. But those years of emerging adulthood are especially vivid because it's the time when who you are starts to solidify. Now squarely in our middle adulthood, we’re all still very much the same, just more distilled versions of ourselves.

Dinner that night was flank steak on the grill, which like the salmon was a big step up from the fare we cooked up in the dorm kitchen.

and lots of wine. Over the meal we made plans for a 50th birthday celebration, just the girls, one year overdue. At this point it’s looking like Costa Rica, and the wheels are in motion for a trip this winter. All I ask, ladies, is that the place has a good outdoor shower where I can suds up, preferably on the beach.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Whole Hog

As you approach the village in which I live, the peak of Mount Abraham rises above the Green Mountains in the near distance. At 4,006 feet, it’s the fifth highest peak in Vermont, and my favorite one to climb. I climb it every year, not only for the breathtaking 360 degree view at the top, but also for the climb itself.

Climbing mountains is used metaphorically in all kinds of literature and music, and for good reason: I made it. I did it. We did this together. I’ve reached a point in my life where I now have new perspective and clarity about where I’ve been and where I’m going. Standing at the top of Mount Abe, as locals call it, has brought all of these feelings to mind, and more, depending on the year in which I’m climbing it.

For someone who struggles with a fear of heights, as I do, standing on a mountaintop also can evoke anxiety. But for some reason Mount Abe doesn’t, even though for the last half mile or so you’re climbing up bald rock, often on your hands and knees. 

Maybe it’s because there are no cliffs at the top I could fall off of. Or maybe it’s because I’ve climbed this particular mountain so many times, leaving from Lincoln Gap and steadily ascending the Long Trail for 2.6 miles until I reach the summit.

The first time I climbed it was with Chris when we were newly married. We were with our friend Steve and his former wife, and it was cold and windy at the top so we huddled in the roofless stone shelter to avoid getting a chill. We’ve since climbed it with babies in backpacks, and with our daughters as young children, excited and determined to keep up. We climbed it for our friend Pam when she was dying of cancer. Faye chose to climb it to celebrate her tenth birthday. We often climb it for Father’s Day, or on Chris’s birthday in August. We’ve climbed it in the fall when the foliage on the surrounding hillsides is achingly beautiful. We’ve climbed it in light rain that turned to a thunderstorm forcing us to turn back. We have friends who climb it in the winter on snowshoes and in the dark to see the sunrise, but we have yet to attempt those. This year, the day we climbed it was a picture perfect summer day: blue skies with puffy clouds, no humidity, and a temperature hovering in the mid-70s.

The trail passes through three natural communities. First, a verdant spruce fir forest with ferns and wildflowers blanketing the floor. 

Next, near the top, krummholz with its distinctive miniature, wind-bent trees. 

And finally at the summit above the tree line, alpine meadow—low growing shrubs, rock dappled with lichen, open to the elements.

When we reached the top, we sat on the rocky ground and talked about the last time we reached this summit—last summer with Isabel—and about the coming year. Faye will be a senior and is thinking about colleges. Isabel, who’s been with us every other year we’ve climbed Mount Abe, is an intern in DC this summer. They both have many mountains yet to climb. But so do Chris and I.

Our dog Callie came along too, as she usually does. She’s a hardy little West Highland White Terrier and hiking is in her blood (although she needed some assistance on the bald rock). I often imagine her ancestors exploring the Scottish Highlands as she scampers along beside us. 

Her former sister Cooper, a Golden Lab mix, used to accompany us for many of her sixteen years. Both have been guilty of breaking the rule at the top, I have to confess, about not stepping on the delicate tundra vegetation.

The way down Mount Abe, for me, is usually harder than the uphill. Those who have knee issues will understand why. Climbing a mountain, especially one with as much bare rock as Mount Abe has, is much more challenging than hiking on winding dirt trails; the bare rock makes you very aware that you're scaling the surface of a mountain.  I recently bought some trekking poles, though, and what a difference they make. I have no idea why I waited so long to acquire some poles, but they will accompany me on every hike, big or small, from now on. 

By the time we’re nearing the bottom, our bodies feel the sense of satisfaction and exhaustion from having pushed ourselves beyond our norm. We’ve also worked up quite an appetite. Food always tastes better after exertion, and a few years ago we discovered the ideal place to enjoy a meal following Mount Abe: Prohibition Pig in Waterbury. It’s about a 30-minute drive down into the Mad River Valley on the other side of the mountain range, and what awaits at Prohibition Pig lives up to its intriguing name.

This restaurant gives the term foodgasm new meaning, especially if you have an appreciation for Southern food like I do—Southern food of the freshest, highest quality possible, made with local ingredients. Pork rinds, hush puppies, and fried pimiento cheese are all on the menu, along with Yankee-Southern mashups such as cheddar grits and maple baked beans. OOhhhh Baby.

Kale Salad is also on the menu, but this is not the place to order that (although I’m sure it’s excellent). If I’m going to go with a salad post-hike, it’s the Crisphead wedge that calls my name, covered as it is with bacon, Bayley Hazen blue cheese, and Mad River Valley Ranch dressing.

Chick’n Biscuits are another favorite, but since I had those the last time I was at Pro-Pig I decided to forego them this time for the specialty of chopped pork barbecue, “Eastern North Carolina style,” made from local Snug Valley whole hog. I grew up below the Mason-Dixon Line and went to college in North Carolina, so this particular style of comfort food is dear to my heart.

The Chopped Pork BBQ Plate features a pile of succulent pork seasoned to perfection with hints of vinegar and spice. It comes with hushpuppies and a choice of two sides; it was tough to choose but I went with the traditional collard greens (to keep it healthy) and grits. Although I’ve been told that true Southerners only eat grits for breakfast, I prefer mine with dinner, and these made good company with the juicy pork. And I mean goooood.

Faye likes a quality burger, and Prohibition Pig’s House Burger comes topped with a fried green tomato, pimento cheese, and bacon. Add to that shoestring fries and she was a happy girl.

Chris forewent his usual hankering for pork barbecue (he lived for two years of his life in North Carolina as well) and opted for the Pit Smoked Chicken. Burnished to a golden brown and deliciously smoky, this chicken is not your everyday chicken. Black eyed peas, hushpuppies, and shoestring fries rounded out his plate. All washed down with some local beer (Waterbury is thought by some to be the center of the craft beer universe), and Italian Barbera for me.

In the end, all that was left was a stray collard green. We can vouch that Pro-Pig’s desserts are swoon-worthy as well (especially the Key Lime Pie), but tonight we were more than satisfied.

Many mountains yet to climb. And many meals to savor.

Monday, June 8, 2015

My Home City

If I had to pick a home city, it would be Washington, DC. Although I was born in Baltimore, we moved when I was five to Pittsburgh and then briefly to Philadelphia before my family settled in Hagerstown, Maryland. The nation’s capital was about 90 minutes southeast, so when I was young, my family made occasional day trips there. And visits to the museums and memorials were also common destinations for school field trips.

But these experiences aren’t why DC feels like my home city. As soon as my friends and I had our licenses, DC exuded a magnetic pull. We ventured down any chance we got to shop and take in concerts at Wolf Trap and Merriweather Post Pavilion (the Eagles, Jackson Brown, and James Taylor were some of the highlights). Eventually, we explored the watering holes in Georgetown, since this was back when the drinking age was 18. I discovered on a recent trip that a few of my old favorites are still there: Sign of the Whale, Clyde’s, and J. Paul’s. Although I didn’t venture into any of these establishments on this trip, from the exterior they appear to be exactly the same. History, of course, is an important part of Georgetown, from the classic architecture 

to the picturesque C & O Canal, whose towpath is now a popular bike and running path.

My longtime friend from Hagerstown and fellow adventurer, Anne, decided to go to college in DC, so when I was home on vacations I often found myself back in the city—celebrating 4th of July with the masses on the Mall and New Year’s Eve at the Old Post Office Pavilion (where a giant postage stamped was dropped, if I recall correctly). The summer before my senior year in college I moved in with Anne and three other young women, all of us squeezed in a small apartment. I waitressed at the Old Post Office Pavilion (the same building where my father had once worked years before), took in the culture, and caroused—in Georgetown and also at new places on Capitol Hill that Anne had discovered and that also are still there today: an Irish pub called The Dubliner, and the Rathskeller, affectionately called the Rat, which a quick Google search identifies as a dive bar. 

On my recent trip, I didn’t make it back to any of these spots, alas. I was there to drop off my daughter Isabel, herself a rising junior in college, for her internship at the National Endowment for the Humanities. I suspect her summer in DC will be more edifying than mine was. Already she has lunched with members of Congress, while the closest I came to them was waiting on their tables or perhaps rubbing elbows with them after hours in one of the watering holes. Nothing is more gratifying than when our children turn out to be an improvement on ourselves.

Isabel and I stayed for a few nights at the lovely Grande Dame The Mayflower located near Dupont Circle. This historic hotel has hosted countless presidential campaign launches and inaugural balls, and its fair share of scandalous trysts involving powerful men (JFK, Bill Clinton, and Eliot Spitzer, to name but a few). 

For dinner, we ate at some memorable restaurants in the neighborhood, such as Urbana, which serves creative Italian inspired dishes. We shared some cast iron roasted shrimp as an appetizer 

and each enjoyed grilled swordfish with fennel, blood orange, and pesto butter. 

The second night we dined at Pesce, sharing Bouillabaisse and a pan roasted whole Branzino. Isabel is the only other member of my immediate family who likes to share meals, so we’re very compatible dining partners.

By day, we explored the city by foot, covering miles and working up an appetite for these hearty meals. My goal was to give Isabel a feel for the city’s various neighborhoods and help familiarize her with the areas not so well known to tourists.

Once Isabel was settled in her apartment, I stayed in the city a couple more days to catch up with my friend Anne. She appreciates good food as much as I do. So after she met me at The Mayflower, we braved a thunderstorm and dashed through the rain to Firefly, a restaurant that specializes in upscale Southern food, one of my favorite genres. We shared creamy shrimp and grits as an appetizer, and then I had a crab cake served on top of a fried green tomato, a brilliant combination if I ever tasted one.

The next day we had planned to go out and about, but after breakfast at her house we talked for a few hours, then had lunch and talked some more, and before we knew it, it was time for dinner. One of life’s great gifts is those lifelong friends whom you’ve known since you were a child; those friends you grew up with. During fifteen important years of our lives, Anne and I laughed and cried and struggled and bumbled and triumphed and failed and laughed again. And now, more than twenty-five years later, we can pick up where we left off as if no time had passed in between.

That night, we dined in the new Mosaic District in Northern Virginia. At the Asian inspired Sea Pearl, we shared soft shell crabs as an appetizer (I can never get enough crab when I’m in the area), 

and then each had the restaurant’s signature dish, a melt-in-your-mouth roasted Chilean sea bass with shiro miso, jalapeno, and snow pea shoots. 

We also shared a bottle of chilled Muscadet, a big step up from what they were serving at the Rat back in the day, and talked some more.