Pesto with a past

Nelia Decker shares her recipe for the potent paste that tastes great on nearly everything.

Basil —Allison Roberts

Editor’s note: I worked at the West Tisbury library — more than a few years ago now — and I’ve wanted this pesto recipe from then children’s librarian Nelia Decker ever since. Nelia not only won the hearts of parents and children during her many years at the library, but she also won over our taste buds with her bright-green pesto made from the basil growing in the little garden in the library’s backyard. We asked Nelia for the backstory of her delicious pesto.

MaryAnn Dolezsar from the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club approached me about making a kids’ garden on the library grounds in the spring of 2016. We had been in the new library for two years and we were excited about trying something new for kids outside to go along with the lovely landscaping that was in place. We decided to have a pizza garden, the goal being a pizza party at the end of the summer. Sounds great, right? Fast forward, I was out most of the summer with knee surgery, deer decimated the garden (they didn’t much like the basil, but loved the tomatoes) and that left the library staff carefully and heroically watering the garden, dragging giant hoses back and forth every day. So, making lemonade out of lemons, and grabbing all the glory, I ad libbed and decided to have a pesto party in September. We made it with the kids, outside on the deck. We spread it on crackers — not wanting to involve boiling water for pasta. Most of the kids had never tasted it, and all of them really liked it. The novelty of eating at the library, eating something we had grown and then made ourselves cinched the deal. Now, of course, the library offers all kinds of snacks and food for families…which is wonderful. 

This recipe is from the original Moosewood Cookbook published in 1977. I first visited the Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y. I had never eaten pesto before and found it to be a revelation. I was attending a book binding course at Cornell, while working at the Book Den East in Oak Bluffs.

The only thing I might change in the recipe is that if you blanche the pesto leaves before adding them to the food processor, the color of the pesto stays green, instead of turning a rather less attractive, but still delicious, brownish-green. Pesto freezes well; try using an ice cube tray for smaller portions. I make it at home all the time, in September, with basil I have grown. I put it on everything. One of my favorite ways is with potatoes. Boil new potatoes; when cooked, drain and slightly mash them adding butter, salt, and pesto. Yum.


About six servings of pasta or gnocchi

3 cups packed fresh basil leaves (removed from stems)
2 large fresh garlic cloves
½ cup pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, or a combination
¾ cup (packed) fresh parsley, chopped
¾ cup fresh grated parmesan
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup melted butter
Salt to taste

Combine everything in a food processor on low, then medium speed. (Arrange things so the blender blade will turn efficiently.) Then work everything into a smooth paste. Toss with hot, drained pasta or spoon onto hot gnocchi.