Monday, September 7, 2015

Pesto al Gusto

I can’t remember the first time I tasted classic pesto, but I do remember it was love at first bite. That heady blend of basil, parmesan, and garlic—with deep base notes of extra virgin olive oil and buttery pine nuts—was intoxicating. It wasn’t long before I was making this fragrant sauce in my own kitchen.

In fact, it’s the main reason I grow basil in my garden. Sure, I love to be able to step outside to gather fresh basil leaves to make a Caprese salad, but this can also be accomplished with some sprigs from the market. Since large quantities of basil are needed to make pesto  (4 packed cups to make 1½ cups of pesto, generally the amount needed for 16 ounces of pasta), it’s most convenient and economical to grow your own, specifically the variety Basilico Genovese. 

Preferably the basil should be young and tender, without any of the bitterness that can come as the plant matures. That being said, I always make a batch this time of year with basil I put in back in late May, and it tastes just fine. Because removing the leaves from the stems is labor intensive and necessary, I like to set aside time to make a big batch all at once and freeze it in individual containers. The sauce keeps well in the freezer and is like a blast of summer in the middle of winter for those of us who live in northern climates.

To harvest basil, I cut the plant way back, stems and all, and fill up a large trash bag. I haul it into my kitchen and instantly the herb’s fragrance fills the space, transforming it into an Italian cucina. Classic pesto originated in northern Italy, in Genoa specifically. I had the good fortune to eat it in its native home several years ago, not far from Genoa.

My family was visiting Italy with my mom, my sister, and her two kids, and that simple but memorable meal was, for me, one of the highlights of trip. We had spent the day hiking the trails of Cinque Terre, 

followed by a swim in the Ligurian Sea. 

By the time we arrived at the restaurant, we were ravenous. When our bowls of pasta were served, we devoured them, washed down with some of the local wine. Whenever I eat pesto pasta now, the memory of that beautiful day resurfaces. One of the best things about food, after all, is the memories it carries.

Categorized as a pounded herb sauce, pesto gets its name from the Italian verb pestare, which means to pound or to crush. Traditionally this was done in a marble mortar using a wooden pestle, but today the modern food processor makes easy work of the process. 

According to custom, the ingredients are blended in a specific order. First the garlic is mashed, followed by the pine nuts, which forms a paste.  Then the basil leaves are added, along with a bit of coarse salt that helps to break down the leaves. Olive oil, the base of so much of Italian cuisine, follows; finally grated Parmigiano Reggiano imparts an incomparable tang and creaminess. Purists would add a little pecorino as well, but it’s not necessary. 

Although simple to make, when pesto is stirred into pasta, slathered on flatbread, or smeared on a sandwich, it’s transformative. I have a hard time thinking of foods that aren’t improved by it. It makes a delicious condiment spooned over grilled chicken, fish, or vegetables, or served with bruschetta or a soft cheese. It jazzes up a cream sauce or mayonnaise, and can even stand alone as a dip. Add a dollop to a salad, tuck it into an omelet, or swirl it into a soup just before serving, as is done with pistou, a nutless Southern French version of pesto. Once you start incorporating pesto into your regular meals, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.

I never tire of classic pesto, but variations on the five main ingredients keep things interesting. You can switch out one ingredient, like using a different nut, for a subtle change. Walnuts are a popular replacement for pine nuts, making the pesto earthier. Almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios are all good options as well.

Another subtle change is to vary the oil, replacing it completely or by half. Since there are so many excellent choices out there, this is an easy way to play around with flavor. I especially like using part walnut oil or a few tablespoons of argan oil for a more pronounced nuttiness. Simply omitting the garlic is another simple, but not so subtle, change, or you can merely dial it down by using garlic chives or scapes instead. If you’re sticking with garlic cloves, makes sure they’re fresh, young cloves, which are less pungent. To lighten the pesto, omit the cheese. This will make the sauce less creamy, and the taste of the oil will be more noticeable.

You can also of course alter the recipe completely, such as making a cilantro-cashew-sesame oil combination; I like to serve this Asian-inspired pesto with grilled fish. Arugula pesto, another favorite, has the benefit of being much less labor intensive than basil pesto since you don’t have to remove the leaves from the stems. It’s also easier to find large quantities of arugula (preferably baby arugula) in the market, and the sauce stays bright green instead of turning dark from oxidizing like basil pesto can. 

Watercress is another alternative to basil, as are mixed herbs, which you can vary according to the season or the dish you’re serving the pesto with. Getting creative with different combinations is one of the beauties of pesto. The only rule I suggest following is to use the highest quality ingredients you can find. 

Even though the official end date of summer is still a couple weeks away, today—Labor Day—always feels like the last day. These final few weeks with their muted colors and touch of coolness in the air are some of my favorite weeks of the year, but they also bring with them a bit of melancholy. It won’t be long before the remaining basil in my garden will be nipped by frost. Knowing I have an ample supply of pesto in my freezer if I need a taste of summer—or of Italy—in the coming months makes this transition easier.


2-3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup pine nuts
4 cups packed basil leaves—preferably Genovese
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
3 tablespoons grated pecorino
coarse sea salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper

Using a food processor, process the garlic and pine nuts. Add the basil, olive oil, and cheese and process until smooth.  Using a spatula, push down any basil on the sides of the bowl. Season with salt and pepper and process for 15 more seconds.

*Pesto keeps for up to 3 days in the refrigerator in an airtight container. To preserve its color, pour olive oil over the surface, or cover it with a small piece of plastic wrap. To freeze, put 1½ cups of pesto in individual containers. Freeze for up to 6 months.

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