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Special Pesto Feature: Jessica Paholsky, "Once Upon A Pesto"

Like everyone I know, these past few days/weeks have been frightening. I am doing all I can to stay productive while practicing the social distancing directives from Governor Cuomo, who by the way, is doing an absolutely amazing job leading New York City.

Earlier this month I kicked off "Pesto of the Month" with a feature as the Chef of the Month on Union Square Greenmarket's Blog, where you can find the recipes for Pea Shoot Pesto and the many ways to use it. The plan was to be on-site at the market in late March and demonstrate how to make Pea Shoot Pesto, as well as, sample a few delicious recipes incorporating it. These events will be postponed until further notice.

In the meantime, I thought it would be fun to profile several fascinating people involved in numerous ways with Pesto. Our first profile is Jessica Paholsky, of Once Upon A Pesto fame. Jessica was kind enough to answer a bunch of questions I posed. Read on for the answers.

Q. Jessica, I look forward to your daily posts on Instagram. They always feature a different and often, very unusual flavor of Pesto, from some exotic part of the world. How do you find these eclectic flavors?

A. Thank you, Leslie. At its core, pesto is about being innovative and resourceful. Some sources site that pesto originated when Italians in the region of Liguria, whose capital is Genoa, wanted to find a way to use the large amounts of basil their gardens had yielded. So they made the basil into a sauce whose name reminds us of the region's capital: Pesto Genovese. When it comes to finding the flavors I use, I remember also that pesto is not necessarily about specific ingredients. The Italians used basil because it's what they had. The word pesto comes from an Italian verb that means "to pound" or "to crush." So it's a process, not a combination of ingredients. And that's where pesto gets really fun and allows you to let your creativity run wild. I like to get ideas as I'm grocery shopping, browsing restaurant menus, and of course, watching Food Network. And then I take those ideas, along with my sense of adventure, to create flavors that appeal to me and other foodies out there.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

A. I've been known to be a creative person since I was very young. Growing up, I was into dance, drawing, and music. It was probably in middle school that I grew tall enough to see above the stove. At that point, I found my creativity could also flourish in the kitchen. I went to school for photography and now, I work as a videographer full-time. So my fascination with pesto allows me to blend my creativity with my passions as a visual artist and a foodie. I'll admit, I am not much of a history buff, but when it comes to food history, you have my full attention. That is why pesto is such a neat concept. Most people don't realize it goes beyond basil and, better yet, that it can technically be made from any combination of ingredients. My goal with “Once Upon A Pesto” is to share this small chapter in the grand world of food history, to teach people that pesto is versatile and fun, and, to challenge myself as a food photographer.

Q. Tell us how you became so enamored with Pesto? Was there a certain person or specific meal that turned your world around?

A. In college, I produced a mini-documentary about olive oil and the false marketing of extra virgin olive oil. I gained my inspiration for this project from Tom Mueller's book "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil." This project blew my mind as I discovered how the average person may not know exactly what is in that bottle sitting in their pantry. I was blessed with the opportunity to film this project at an olive farm in the central region of Umbria in Italy. Once I returned to the U.S. and produced this video, I knew my interest in olive oil could evolve. It was a couple of years later that I secured a job as a videographer at a publishing company. Right away, I saw that as a chance to learn from the accomplished authors and food writers around me. I remember sunning by the pond where I lived at the time, thinking about olive oil's role in pesto and that's where I knew I could take olive oil down a new (pesto) path. My sister had gifted me "The Flavor Bible" by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg around that time. This book was the perfect accompaniment to my pesto goals. It inspired many of the flavor combinations I use in my pesto recipes. If you never heard of the book, I highly recommend it to any foodie.

Q. Is your fascination with Pesto because you are a cook, a gourmand, a world traveler or all of the above?

A. That is a great question! I never considered myself a serious cook and growing up, let's just say my palette was much more limited. Since my taste buds have changed and cooking is an essential part of my life, I would say my experience in travel is what feeds my fascination with pesto. I studied abroad in Mexico, Italy, and Cuba during college. Immediately out of college, I worked for two years at a teen travel company. That gave me the opportunity to travel more in Europe as well as in China and Costa Rica. The cultures that I got to experience first-hand really inspired me. It's easy to limit ourselves to the foods we like and the ethnic restaurants that are close to us. But look beyond that, and, yes, there is a whole world! It's a world full of flavors and cooking or baking techniques that we can discover. As a world traveler and pesto recipe developer, I find an ingredient that tells us about a certain culture and then use that pesto in dishes unique to that culture's country. Pesto is often associated with Italian food, but with a little food history and creativity, it becomes a limitless foodie dream.

Q. Are you a professional blogger or is this your side gig?

A. My full-time career as a videographer leaves pesto blogging as my side gig. That means I can have fun with it. There's no pressure since it allows me to express my creativity and learn from other foodies without worrying about whether or not it would pay my bills.

Q. Do you have a favorite Pesto flavor? If yes, how do you like to serve it?

A. A favorite pesto flavor, to me, is an oxymoron because pesto is so, so diverse. What I learned from the "The Flavor Bible" is that the flavor you get from one ingredient relies on its chemistry with the other ingredients. And that's really cool to me. It allows one ingredient to be sweet one moment, savory the next. I'm definitely more of a savory person. So if I had to choose a favorite pesto flavor, I would say those that are complex and make you really think about what it is you're eating. For example, I make a capers pesto that I use in a feta dip. One bite and it's like you're in the Mediterranean!

Q. If you could enjoy a Pesto inspired meal with anyone, who would that be? Where would it take place? What flavor Pesto would you highlight and what would the meal consist of?

A. I would love to travel back in time to have a meal with the Italian gardeners who decided they had more basil than they could handle and decided to make it into a sauce (now known as Pesto Genovese). It would be right next to their gardens and I would share with them my recipe for olive pesto, used in a mac 'n cheese dish made with Cavatappi pasta. I think this would open both of our eyes to how their other common crops and key ingredients, like pasta and cheese, are used in other areas of the world.

Q. Why did you create “Once Upon A Pesto”? How did you arrive on that name? What did you hope to share? What is your future plan for it?

A. “Once Upon A Pesto” gives notion of a fairy tale. And that's part of my mission: to share with others that making pesto is child-like. It's fun, it doesn't have to be perfect, it can be messy, and it is always eager to learn. Not to mention, the cherry on top is the alliteration in “Once Upon A Pesto”. For the future of “Once Upon A Pesto”, I hope to continue sharing the global story of pesto and inspire others to find their creativity in the kitchen without worrying about making mistakes.

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