First of all, what the heck is Pesto? Pesto, as we mostly know it today, is a sauce that originated in Genoa in northern Italy that traditionally consists of basil, crushed garlic, pine nuts blended with olive oil, one-half Parmigiano Reggiano (cow) cheese and one-half Pecorino Sardo (sheep) cheese and you have Pesto Genovese. The word Pesto is key here – derived from the Genoese word pestâ which literally means to crush, referring to the original method of preparation, i.e. with mortar and wooden pestle. That has always been my preferred method of preparation though mostly stems from my manual pre-Cuisinart days. We are reminded that you grind the ingredients with a circular motion of the pestle in the mortar. Yes, this whole process is where we got the word pestle. By the way, the Romans ate a distant cousin of Pesto (moretum) in ancient times so the Italian pedigree is legitimate…
My Mother was a great cook though I only remember her making Pesto a few times and that was probably under the influence of my Foodie Godmother Charlotte Von Breton. The key to this and probably any recipe is to use only fresh ingredients and serve as soon as it’s made. You can keep pesto in your frig for a few days and even freeze it, but fresh is always preferred. I have used this recipe on pasta of all species or even just to slather on some great freshly baked focaccia bread.
Admittedly, I have never really measured my ingredients, just eyeballed them on the fly until I got the consistency and taste I wanted. This is so incredibly easy I fear that even putting this on paper might muck up the whole adventure. This is a casual, on the fly, Family celebration where children of all ages can participate and then enjoy. It’s good and (Gads!) probably even healthy for you… My timing and attention to detail all depended on how many glasses of wine consumed and timing of the meal (ah, reality!).
You are going to need the following ingredients.
· Bunches of fresh and preferably young, freshly picked basil leaves - washed and dried – no stems please. Get Genovese (aka Lemon) Basil if possible. The amount you can comfortably stuff in a gallon Glad bag is about right.
· Garlic, probably about two cloves… finely chopped
· Pine nuts (raw) and about a handful (1/4 cup or more of Mediterranean, not Asian)
· Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) – from several large tablespoons to ? – do not overdo!
· Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste. No need to add much salt b/c of the cheese.
· Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo Cheese (say half to three-quarters of a cup or more)
I rarely process the ingredients together or all at once though I take the basil and pine nuts and chop them up first with my prized mezzaluna. In smaller amounts I then put them in the pestle in stages and with a teaspoon of the extra virgin olive oil (seems to stop the basil from oxidizing) start a moderate but not too aggressive grind adding more ingredients when I am approaching the desired texture and color. The grinding seems to enhance and release more of the natural flavors of the ingredients. Now, I don’t overdo this step as I want a coarser texture, not a slick paste, so a caution - don’t get too energetic here. When I have the right texture I add a little more EVOO. Put all that into one of my cherished Brant Barnes batter bowls, mix in the coarsely chopped cheese, salt and pepper and add more oil all to my taste and desired consistency and then - consume.
I like to spread pesto on a good focaccia bread and also serve over pasta, even on pizza and on freshly sliced tomatoes. I’ve used a dollop along with some red onion in soups like pasta e fagioli or minestrone. This mixture can be stuffed into tortellini, ravioli - whatever. Now having said all this, if I’m pressed for time then I throw everything into the food processor and pulse until it looks OK. Otherwise, it takes about an hour to put it all together manually.
There are many different variations on this recipe where you can use other favorite herbs to create interesting alternatives. Try mint, cilantro, sage, parsley and even roasted red peppers or a mild pepper like poblano as a base. Of course, with the peppers you will have to use your blender or food processor.
Now, can you add this mixture to hamburgers, meatballs or even add to tacos or burritos? You bet, after all we are in the Lone Star State! You can play around with this recipe as your imagination, taste buds and allergies allow. I have heard some who have substituted cashew, pecan or even macadamia or pistachio nuts for the pine nuts which can be pricey.
For me and other adults (thank you for that concession) the total experience is punctuated by a red Italian wine preferably a no-miss, sure-bet Chianti Classico Riserva (medium priced Ruffino or Santa Margherita) or any other Super Tuscan. Whether it’s the “earthy, acidic, black cherry character” of the Chianti or a cultural sensitivity to and appreciation of northern Italy (could be), it just tastes good (mouth feel and finish) and makes good sense to pair an Italian dish with an Italian wine.
When all’s said and done, just do what feels and tastes good to you and share with your Family and Friends. Take pride that you did it yourself and in control of yet another aspect of your culinary life. Last evening, for the first time in about ten years, I did just that with good Friends and a 2007 Ruffino Riserva Ducale from Tuscany. There’s good reason why folks gather in the kitchen…