Wednesday, October 29, 2008

New Traditions

Years ago, when I was living in Boston, I found a recipe for pesto that I absolutely needed to try. I probably spent half a paycheck getting the ingredients for it at Star Market, but I made it and loved it. Penne with pesto became my signature dish for entertaining, and everyone I made it for loved it, too. Eventually I introduced it to my parents, who received it equally well, and for whom it was probably as much an earthy, economical, practical dish as it was Italian gourmet. With everyone in my family on board--my parents, my sisters, their husbands, and later my niece and nephew-- a new family favorite was born.

Every summer now for the past ten or so years, my mother, my oldest sister M and I--or some permutation of the three of us-- make pesto when my mother has an abundance of basil and parsley in her garden. Because basil grows back after my mother picks the leaves, we usually make it more than once. We buy olive oil and garlic and pine nuts and Parmesan and Romano cheese and make as many batches as we can, using my original recipe-- now a tattered, blue index card. Of course my mother does the majority of the prep work. Before M and I show up at a scheduled day and time, she spends hours picking the leaves, then obsessively rinsing away every grain of grit (this usually takes three soaks) and drying the basil and parsley. We simply measure and puree, then divvy the batches into one-cup portions, using yogurt and margarine containers that my mother saves, and freeze them for use during the year. Aside from always having an easy meal in the freezer, I am glad we make pesto because it is a new tradition.

Despite the fact that I see more and more of my mother in me--when I'm browsing through produce "reduced for quick sale" or day old bread, packing up my leftovers (because like my mother I usually cook for an army) to freeze or share with friends and family, or seasoning with a freefall of kosher salt--we don't cook together. At nearly 70, it is still rare to visit and not find her in the garden or in the kitchen canning pickles, shredding or ringing cabbage to make cole slaw, or pounding dough.

As a girl, I begrudgingly responded to her calls for help to lay out Polish linen dishtowels on every square inch of available counter and table space on which she arranged rows of pierogi after she pinched them shut to rest while they awaited their boiling water bath. I would rather have poked needles in my eyes than sit with my sister L and snip the ends of bushels of green beans in the summertime. I have not once wrapped a boiled cabbage leaf around palmful of cooked rice and ground beef. I love all those things she makes-- pickles and pierogi, kapusta, babka, gołąbki--but know how to make none of them.

At least we have pesto.

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