Growing up, there were always herbs right outside my door. My grandparents, who lived with us, would send whomever was passing through the kitchen outside to the little patch of ground right outside the door whenever something was needed. My grandmother would taste whatever she was making at the time, and would tilt her head like she was listening to bats sing to each other.
"Fraaa... va piu basilico. Na poco."** (Fraaaa... go get basil. Just a little.)
My grandmother would call to my grandfather, whose name was Francesco (whom she lovingly called Fra. When she called his name, it faded nicely and the "ahh" sound was always drawn out like a sigh.) **(this is all phonetic spelling; I have no idea how to actually spell things in Italian.)
He would look at me, usually engrossed in my homework, stare until I realized someone was looking at me, then say,
"Dani-eh... va pia basilico per la vostra nonna; va." (Daniela, go get basil for your grandmother; go!)
I would drop what I was doing (seriously, you did not mess with dinner,) run outside, and pick basil until my Nonna would shout out the window, "basta!" (stop!) I'd run in, drop the basil next to the sink, run in the bathroom and wash my hands, and continue whatever it was that I was doing in the first place.
I have mentioned before that I don't really like pasta, since eating it nearly every single night for my entire childhood pretty much ensured that once on my own, I would do everything in my power not to eat it again, unless it was an absolute craving.
"Dani-eh, perche non statei mangare?" ("Why aren't you eating?") This was their typical reaction when I'd see pasta on the table in my late teens. "Non sonno affama," I'd say, promptly call my best friend Debbie, and see what her family was having for dinner.
My grandmother did make a mean pesto, which I would slather on thick slices of toasted bread, top with a bit of mozzarella, and reek of garlic for about an hour or three. This is my version of her recipe, since I never could reach in and measure things that she made. She would toss in a few heads of garlic into the oven whenever she happened to turn it on.
(I'm allergic to pine nuts, so I never put them in. Do feel free to add 1/2 cup of pine nuts, toasted until they are lightly golden brown.)
2 cups packed basil leaves, meaning that you have to pack them tightly into the cup to measure them.
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup pecorino romano cheese
1 head roasted garlic
1/4 baking soda
Heat about 6 cups of water and baking soda in a large saucepan until boiling. Blanch the basil for about 5-10 seconds, and quickly remove it to an ice bath. Dry basil. Place the basil, cheese, and garlic in a food processor or blender. Add 1/2 cup of olive oil, and puree until blended. With the blender running, slowly drizzle in the remaining oil. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week. It will separate, but give it a good stir and all will be well.
It can be slathered on chicken breasts, bread, pizza, steak, tomatoes, mixed with cheese and marinated, mixed with cream cheese for a dip, mixed with roasted red potatoes, the list goes on and on.