Here's my recipe for pesto. It's about as easy as it gets... (serves around 8 -- refrigerates well, so don't hesitate to make more than you need)

Ingredients:

Method:

Wash the basil gently by dipping in a large bowl of water. Shake dry. In the food processor, process together all ingredients except the cheese and butter, until the mixture appears uniform. Add the cheese and butter and process briefly, just until they appear evenly distributed.

Serve on practically any pasta (diluted with just a drop of the pasta's cooking water), or use pesto to season salads, or spread in fancy sandwiches along with other yummies.

1 1/2 firmly packed cups fresh basil leaves
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 Tbs pine nuts
1/2 cup romano cheese, grated
1 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste


  1. place all ingredients in a food processor or blender.
  2. blend at high speed until the sauce is smooth and thin.
  3. toss over your favourite pasta.

How to add more zest to your life:

Next time you want to use butter, use pesto instead. Spread it on bagels, toast, potatoes, wherever you would normally use butter. After several days of this practice, I must wholeheartedly recommend it. Why, you ask? It's simple:

  1. Pesto is tastier. It's just one of those foods that's filled with flavor and zing. It's like playing ska music in your car in the morning. Definitely a food with attitude.
  2. It's healthier (slightly). It has more fat than butter, but the difference is all unsaturated fat. Plus, it has some carbohydrates and protein that butter just doesn't provide. But who cares about that? Because...
  3. It's green. Come on, who wants to put some boring old butter on a piece of bread when you can put this awesome green stuff on it?
Pesto can be a bit expensive, so maybe this practice should be considered a delicacy. But keep in mind, sometimes happiness has no price.

By now, pesto should have carved a niche into your day-to-day consumer psyche. Pale and wanting, mass-produced versions of this noble sauce have most likely insinuated themselves onto your local supermarket shelves - alongside ready-to-bake bread, instant pancake mixes and a disturbingly plentiful array of various Coke products.

'Tis a twofold cynicism I feel when considering pesto outside of Italy - Naturally, I am chuffed that such a sensational regional preparation lives on and has garnered such widespread renown - but on the other hand I am more than a little saddened by some of the insipid and charlatan versions that are available, not only in the over-lit halls of supermarkets, but in some restaurants and cafes as well.

I have said it before, but it really does bear up with the re-run, the best comestibles you will find will always comes from your own hand, and your own kitchen.¹ The assemblage of something like pesto does not require the talents of a master chef. Even the most trembling novice, given the right ingredients and a small serve of patience, will end up with a superior product to the store bought option - every single time.

So why now, after years of making pesto, do I suddenly decide to share my (no doubt similar to many on the hang) recipe? Because I just recently discovered something - something so simple that it is close to embarrassing. Good pesto can be made by anyone with the right ingredients - but great pesto on the other hand, will come only to those with the right technique. Allow me to elaborate.

The dense, garlicky and nutty sauce that is pesto originated around the city of Genoa, in Liguria, northern Italy. You may well have seen it marked up as pesto alla Genovese; a name that belies its origins succinctly. Now I have had it put to me over the years that pesto is sorta-kinda a ye-olde Italian word for paste. The textural nature of the sauce never caused me to look further into the issue. As it turns out however, the word pesto is gleaned from the verb pestare, which in a very loose sense means to step, or jump on - exactly how you would treat a vat full of grapes before making Chianti. This crushing verb makes more sense when you consider that the grinding action of a mortar and pestle is the secret to true pesto.

Pestle < = > Pestare, I think a coincidence not.

After close to a decade of making pesto in a food processor, it has only just recently dawned on me that the finest pesto you will ever taste comes out of a mortar and pestle - aided by a little elbow grease. Don't get me wrong - a food processor will still yield a pretty damn good result (and I'll show you how later), but if you would like to see Ligurian grandmothers smiling in silent appreciation - then make it with the pestle.

What exactly is the difference between a hand ground, and a mechanically ground pesto? First cab of the rank would most likely be texture. Anything you make in a food processor will naturally be smoother than a hand ground version. More importantly - the all important basil flavour is generously amplified and accentuated by the slow grinding action of a pestle, over the pulverizing action of the food processor.

Before I give you some recipes, a brief word on the ingredients is in order. Obviously fresh basil is absolutely essential, as is fresh garlic. Where the issue gets contentious is with the cheese. Purists will insist that a well-aged pecorino is the only cheese to consider. I am more liberal on the curds issue, and believe that a nice Parmesan, even some plain old grana, will do nicely. Pine nuts (or pinolo) are also considered crucial to pesto. I tend to agree with this, but at the same time, I recognize that pine kernels are not cheap, and are getting more expensive by the day. In an attempt to sidetrack these scary prices, I have invited a few other nuts to the pesto party - with some success. Plain blanched almonds and sunflower seeds works pretty damn well, but aim for pine nuts if you can afford them.

Here are two recipes - the first slogged out in a mortar and pestle - the traditional, and molto yummiest way. The second uses a food processor, but conceals a small trick - one that will ensure your pesto is still way above the supermarket aisles.




Pesto in the mortar and pestle

Ingredients

Method

Heat your oven to 180 °C (360 °F). Place the pine nuts (or any other nuts you choose) onto a baking sheet. Place them in the oven for ten minutes, or until they turn a light brown colour and smell nicely aromatic. Pluck each and every leaf from the bunch of basil and set aside.

Place a handful of basil in the mortar, and gingerly begin crushing them with the pestle. After a few minutes, add another handful of basil and the garlic. Grind to a smooth(ish) paste, and then add the nuts, followed closely by the cheese. Keep grinding and adding basil until a smooth (but not pureed) consistency has been achieved - you will want a little bit of texture in the finished product. Add some salt and pepper, and then add most of the oil, while simultaneously grinding away. You will notice that the oil greedily incorporates itself into the pesto - this is good. Tip the pesto into a bowl, and cover with any remaining olive oil. Stored like this in the fridge, it should keep for close to two weeks.




Pesto in the food processor

Ingredients

Method

The ingredients are the same - but the method holds a little twist.

Heat your oven to 180 °C (360 °F). Place the pine nuts (or any other nuts you choose) onto a baking sheet. Place them in the oven for ten minutes, or until they turn a light brown colour and smell nicely aromatic. Pluck each and every leaf from the bunch of basil and set aside.

Place the garlic, cheese and nuts in a food processor and pulse until you have a coarse paste. Do not over-process this mixture. It is crucial that it retains a nice chunky texture.

Tip the nut and garlic mixture out of the food processor and into a bowl. Place the basil leaves into the processor, and quickly whiz to a coarse consistency. Add the nut mixture, and pulse until just combined. Do not over-work, or you will end up with a sauce with little integrity. Taste for salt and pepper. Complete the next step with fleet-footed assurance. Leave the motor running, and add the oil, in a thin steady stream - until the pesto forms a slightly textured paste. Do not procrastinate here - this step must be done with confident haste

Tip the pesto into a bowl, and cover with a thin layer of olive oil. This pesto too, can be stored in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.


  • ¹To confound the issue slightly, Ouroboros claims that in California, the Trader Joe's chain of stores retails a pretty mean commercial pesto. Try it out if you live locally (but try mine as well - just for comparison sake.)

    The snake chasing his tail also mentions that fresh walnuts are pretty good in this sauce - and I tend to concur. He also mentions "Chinese pine nuts", which are apparently much cheaper. I have never used them - but hell, if the price is right - go for it.

  • Anthropod reminds me that although pesto keeps well refrigerated, you can further extend its shelf life by freezing. If you can't see yourself using all the pesto quickly enough, by all means - wrap it tightly and freeze it. I'd say for up to three months.

  • Or try momomom's suggestion for a pine nut substitution - macadamia nuts.

  • Chiisuta also has a favourite - cashews.

  • belgand points out (and I can vouch for this perfectionism/insanity, because I have seen it writ) that the great Italian epicurean authority, Marcella Hazan espouses "..it must have two cheeses to be made properly: pecorino romano and parmesean in a 1:4 ratio.." Don't mess the ratio up - whatever you do.

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