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Life's Lesson N°10: Pesto and a Daily Affirmation à la Stuart Smalley

Finally, getting back to cooking! If you remember, we are covering the 15 dishes that everyone should master. So far we have covered hummus, chicken pot pie, chili, pot roast, spaghetti carbonara, carrot cake, lasagna, hollandaise sauce and beef bourguignon. We are now at N° 10: Pesto!
I come from a family where making homemade pasta is normal. Making pesto was normal as well. However, I can see how it would not occur to some families to make your own pesto. It’s just so easy to buy that little jar! But guess what? It is also just so easy to make a quick batch of pesto and it is 10 times more delicious… And it’s fun! A little elbow grease never hurt anyone. Isn’t cooking fun just altogether? I don’t like people who can’t cook. I think they’re weird. (Except my friend Jenny.) Cooking is just one of the greatest pleasures of life… According to The World According to Ellie. Don’t you agree? :-)
I plan on making a lot of pesto this summer. Why? Because yes, it’s that time of year again… The time of year that Ellie gets the bug to move to Provence. I am a California girl at heart and if I don’t get some sunshine on my shoulders soon, I am going to wilt away. My BFF, Jenny, was at my apartment the other day and she said to her daughter, “Ellie was always barefoot.” Jenny has known me since I was 16 years old and it’s true, “I am a barefoot kind of girl.” My friend Linda, unexpectedly this morning, emailed me a picture of a slide that she found in her files from when I was 16 years old. I looked at the slide and thought, “Yes, that is me. That is who I am. I need to find that girl again.”

 Me at 16. Photo taken by the amazing Mikel Roberts @mikelrob.

That girl is the kind of girl who likes sunshine and a quiet life, being outside, going to farmers markets, digging in a garden, arranging flowers and cooking… Cooking for friends. Don’t get me wrong, I love Paris but it is just not who I am. I can do Paris but I would rather do Provence. So, I have spent the last week looking for a house to rent. Ideally, I would like to live in St. Tropez if all of the tourists would leave and it could be like the 1960s again. I’m pretty sure I’m fooling myself thinking that I can find a little cottage in St. Tropez for under $2 billion dollars. So, I’ve started my search in Aix-en-Provence, the Luberon Valley, Avignon, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, or L'Isle sur la Sorgue. Wherever it is the hottest year around. Let me tell you a secret, I’m really looking for an abandoned 18th-century mas (farmhouse) that is nearly free, with a pool, that I can “fix up.” I think I was seduced by the movie, A Good Year, that I watch four times over the weekend.


I remember reading in 1989 Peter Mayle’s, A Year in Provence, and being absolutely smitten. I was only 19 at the time and now I am 45 years old, so it’s obvious that I did not make these plans on a whim. It’s been my plan all along… Now I just need to implement it. I haven’t really mentioned any of this to my husband. I haven’t really mentioned to him that we are getting a new cat tomorrow either but whatever. He is on a need to know basis.
When I finally find a house to rent in Provence, you can rest assured that I will spend the summer making pesto! Then I’m going to start making every provencal dish known to mankind…tapenade, pissaladiere, Provençal stew, petit farcis, aioli, ratatouille, and tarte aux figue.
But for today, let’s start mastering pesto, shall we?
The basic ingredients to pesto are always basil, pine nuts, olive oil, Parmesan, and garlic but there are some secrets to this basic recipe…,

Secrets to a great pesto?
  1. Blanch your basil quickly in boiling water for 1 – 2 seconds and then quickly transfer it to cold water to seal the color.
  2. Use Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano in both grated and shaved forms to give it flavor and texture.
  3. Use a bit of agave nectar to cut down on the garlic’s spiciness.
  4. The basil should be young and freshly picked… Preferably from the Ligurian hillside :-)
  5. Use a good mild olive oil.
  6. Do not toast the pine nuts.
  7. Only use a mortar and pesto… Don’t use the food processor, lazy.

Okay, now that we understand the tricks of the trade, let’s look at some recipes…

 Barefoot Contessa Salmon with Pesto
( not traditional pesto)

Voilà! Pesto!

*Something you don’t know about me? I never think that something is impossible. Everything is possible. Luckily, I was raised in America where your dreams can come true… If you work hard enough. I always tell Gracie that she can do anything and be anything that she wants. The world is her oyster. I am also a big believer in visualization and manifestation. If you don’t believe me, remember that I am five years into a terminal illness that was supposed to take me three years ago. A little positive thinking goes a long way. Don’t be a victim, be a believer… in yourself. If you want something bad enough and you work hard enough, it can happen. Don’t let anyone hold you back….Not your stupid spouse, not your stupid parents, not your stupid friends, and most importantly not your stupid self. Trust yourself and remember that we only have one life… And it is short, so you might as well make the best of it. If you have any questions… I’ll be in Provence.


  1. Ellie I love pesto! I'm going to grow a big patch of basil in my garden this summer so I can make super fresh pesto. I'll follow your tips and I'll stop using my food processor, you're right that's lazy of me.
    We are the same age and I also read A Year in Provence in 1989 and then dreamed of going there for years and years. We went in 2011 for two weeks but I think about going back all the time. I did buy a recipe book when I was there, it's all in French but for some reason I can read it, funny because I was just looking at it this morning.
    I just love this recipe series Ellie thank you. xo

  2. OKAY...........I will meet you in PROVENCE this summer.I need to TEACH HEATHER to drive and you would be a GREAT BACK SEAT DRIVER!!!!!!!!!!I was just telling the ITALIAN last night at dinner........I NEED to go to FRANCE this summer.
    He makes the pesto for the house for the entire year!He brings home a huge crate of BASIL from the place where they grow it and we have to trim the stems........The first year my MOM and I did it wrong and had to re do the crate!!!!!!!It took forever.Then he uses most of those ingredients and does USE the CUSINART to puree.We then pour into plastic cups.......THE ONLY TIME I USE THESE GLASSES.........and cover with olive oil then wrap with saran wrap.He makes shelves in the bottom shelf of the freezer and we stack them.............if we are LUCKY and the BOYS do not RAID the freezer to often we have enough PESTO for ONE YEAR!I like to add a little whipping cream especially if there is not PESTO left in the cup to say feed four people.That small plastic cup is good for at least 3 dinners TO START in this CASA!
    A great item to have handy when one is tired or running LATE because she has been out SHOPPING ALL DAY!!!!!!!!!!!CAN't imagine who that could BE!
    PS. I don't think I have seen THAT MOVIE you watched FOUR to FIND IT!
    LOVE YOUR BLOG.............I have a new POST up today about THE PIG!I sent it to you since I LOST ALL MY SUBSCRIBERS!!!!!!!!!!!XOXOXO

    1. I'm going to teach Heather how to drive! That ought to be interesting. Come back to France! Your pesto sounds delicious. XOXO

    2. Oh my goodness...between the two of you? We could make a movie out of it because certainly I would spend far too much time laughing to learn anything!

      But yes, che bella Contessa, I am counting on 45ish...this ex-NYer is finally going to learn how to drive!

    3. TRUST ME IT WILL HAPPEN...................not sure when BUT this is on MY BUCKET LIST!!!!!!!!!! you have TWO CATS now?!!!

    4. PS. Just made YOUR PECAN PIE MRS.ELEANOR DECRET...............looks FAB!Have company tonight!THANK YOU for those cookbooks........I LOVE THEM!

  3. Um yes. I agree with almost all of this. I can't wait for you to move to Provence. I was raised in a non-cooking Christimas we used to have KFC (a long standing joke/tradition because my GG had an affair with Colonel Sanders [sorry if any of his family is shouldn't have trusted your great great grandpa at the Boat Club] ). My mom still prefers Prego canned sauce to my homemade. I am fine with people who don't cook as long as they assume the role of eating, staying the fuck out of the way, and dropping everything and running to the market if I forgot something (which I always do, usually the most important ingredient). I've never dated a guy who liked to cook. Maybe that's my problem?
    Anyway, I am ALWAYS barefoot. Always. I hate shoes and only have like ten pairs and they last forever because I really only wear them when necessary. Your life in Provence is my ideal life. I would rather be 20 minutes from home at the farmers market, carrying my mean friend's bag for her than anywhere else. I schedule my entire summer around the farmers market. So, pesto. I do use my cuisinart and I have no shame. But you do have to be careful as to not make it a basil smoothie. Also I like everything super acidic so rather than Blanche (my phone makes that a proper noun bc I'm usually talking about Blanche Devereux) my basil, I add a bunch of lemon juice and that sets the color also by stopping oxidation. I usually prefer raw garlic, but pesto with roasted garlic is very good as well. Especially if you have guests sensitive to raw garlic. Another favorite twist is to add sundried tomatoes. Soooo good. One of my favorite things is angel hair pasta tossed in sundried tomato pesto with anchovies. I also like to make a cilantro pesto (with lime juice instead of lemon) and use it as a dressing for a cucumber, tomato, and red onion salad.

    1. Thank you for making me laugh and smile. You are officially invited to my house in Provence (if I ever get one) and I will be your new mean friend and you can carry my bag to the farmers market.

    2. Stephen, je t'adore. How clearly can I see us all at Ellie's house eating Stephen's red pesto (as they call it here, or, even better, caviar des tomates) pasta and swilling local rosé. I will bring the rosé. ;)

  4. You are the best Ellie and I cannot wait to hear about your new adventures and pesto making this summer!

    The Arts by Karena

  5. good night nurse! you do have the uncanny ablilty to
    say the right thing at the right time to me!
    thanks for the kick in the keister!
    Viva Provence.

  6. Thank you for the recipes! Hope you find a house to rent soon.

  7. Hi Ellie, once again thank you. I am going through a difficult time and this was exactly what I needed to read before I start feeling too sorry for myself, somehow you always say exactly what I need to hear.
    I am one of those "weirdos" that doesn't cook! Never have, but I do love a home cooked meal. I hope that you find a beautiful home in Provence and that you invite the "Ellie fan club" for good food and good company.
    A new cat? I want to hear all about that, I am the ultimate cat person, I have one cat, Sakhi, he is a Maine coon rescue and he has his own FB page. Sakhi has actually made friends from all over the world and I have visited and met some of them, no , I am not on a pass from the nut house lol. I can't wait to hear all about how Frances reacts to the new addition to the family!
    As always, you are fabulous, thank you xoxoxo

  8. Pesto. Provence. Perfect.
    Without a doubt you will get there and will have a wonderful summer, can't wait to hear about it! Your determination and positive attitude are so inspiring, and your posts always seem to appear when my own resolve needs a little bolstering. Thank you.
    xx, Catherine

  9. Beautiful Ellie, I too love pesto, have tons of herbs planted and yes basil! I cook and love it.....
    uncanny all the things you love I love too....I dash over here daily for inspiration. I am in between
    here in the USA/Fla.....trying to figure out how to support myself now and love your inspirations.
    Your words are my mom's words to me, these words forge me ahead. My dream for years and
    years is to live in Provence, I love the garden and grab a snooze on my 1950 chaise outside; I
    need the quiet, away from this world so filled with noise. (the mosquitos have not arrived yet,
    grrrr them) This centers barefoot me. I see you in Provence no doubt and I believe you are
    going to make it happen, it's time! :-))))))....I am constantly reading about places to buy in Provence...
    My goodness I will sell all I have here in Fl., to live in Provence. I'll fix up an old chicken coup
    to live there, ha ha ha! OhMyGosh this is so exciting and I will be sincerely happy to see you there!
    Hippity Hop! xoxo

    1. Leslie in OregonApril 1, 2015 at 3:54 PM

      Bliss Bliss, for a good read about someone who has lived the Provencal dream you describe, see Carol Drinkwater's "The Olive Farm" and her subsequent books.

    2. WoW, Leslie, thank you so much! As Ellie mentioned, I watched those movies too!

  10. of my many...I lost a lot when my Mac fried....I know how good you are at research, if I find more happy to share here....

  11. Ellie,
    I grew up in a pesto family. That pizza looks fabulous. But the affirmation really hit home. Thank you. Big hugs back to you for all that you are.

  12. I have a jar of Ligurian pesto in the fridge, I think you figured out dinner for us tonight. Now back to dreaming of summer in the south of France...

  13. Ellie,
    I am a sunshine on my shoulders gal, too and have also longed for Provence (you and I were "neighbors" - I was born in Laguna Beach - we probably passed each other on the street :) When we did have the chance for a family vacation we rented a house in the Lot Valley. We were in St. Sylvestre and had a beautiful old house in a small-ish villiage, huge grassy back yard with pool, 1 block away from the river MUCH cheaper than Provence. We used this company: and were very happy with them. No fixer-uppers - these are week to week rentals, but beautiful landscapes, wonderful farmer's markets and brocantes, and much sunshine. Makes me want to go back! I live in Iowa now and it's been a loooong winter!
    PS: Cilantro pesto is amazing!

  14. HEE HEE, got this today from Vicki of French Essence:

  15. Dear Ellie, I am such a believer, so here I go from Australia to the Ligurian hillside to pick my basil........See you there xxx

  16. I just love you Ellie! I will definitely be using your recipe for pesto!! Seriously, when I log on and you have posted it makes my day.

  17. Happy cooking and looking for that place in Provence!! In the meantime I will enjoy reading your blog wherever you are! Happy Days and many Blessings!!!

  18. Making notes on all the pesto secret comments and hope to up my pesto game this year. Love your essential cooking series, Ellie. 30 has come and gone but better late then never.

  19. I just happened to watch and episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations in Provence last night. He and crew stayed in an 18th century farmhouse outside Aix-en-Provence (8 acres w/pool). It was hysterical to watch him cook a large meal for local friends in a kitchen "designed by the Marquis de Sade". You learn why he decides NOT to make Aioli, what's great about Ricard Pastis, and how to spot a tourist from the locals...depends on what side of the street you're walking :)

    You can rent the farmhouse he stayed in through a website called The Mas is named Ferme Du val Ref: AH76 - Good Luck with your search...the journey is half the fun, right?!

  20. I would just like to say it's 3:34 am where I am and after finding your blog earlier today (yesterday?) I can not stop. You are hilarious, inspiring and have fabulous taste! Please do not stop writing. And, thank you.