A simple but wonderful thing awaits when you gather pine nuts, parmigiano and your best olive oil into a mortar and start pounding, or in Italian: pestare!
By Louise Crosby
It’s one of the many rituals of summer, like going for ice cream on a warm evening, or eating watermelon at a cottage. When bundles of local basil start appearing, it’s time to gather up the pine nuts, some new garlic and Parmigiano, and your best olive oil, and whizz it all together into a sauce. It’s a simple but wonderful thing.
Classic pesto originated in Liguria, the northern coastal region of Italy that includes the city of Genoa. It is traditionally prepared using a mortar and pestle, as the pounding is believed to bring out the full flavour of the basil. (The word “pesto” comes from the Italian verb pestare, to grind or crush.) It is also traditionally tossed with trenette, a long slender noodle, as well as cooked string beans and sliced small potatoes. This recipe, tweaked slightly from The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook by Nancy Harmon Jenkins, makes use of a food processor, which suits me just fine. And although her book includes the full recipe for Trenette al Pesto (with pasta, beans and potatoes), I’m giving you just the pesto recipe today.
There exist so many variations of pesto: with arugula, parsley, cilantro and other herbs swapped for the basil; with walnuts, pistachios or almonds swapped for the pine nuts. And it can be eaten in so many other ways besides with pasta – a teaspoon stirred into your minestrone soup, for example, or in a sandwich, or dribbled judiciously on grilled or poached fish, or on slices of sun-ripened tomatoes. Pesto is a strong taste, so a little goes a long way.
This recipe takes just minutes to prepare once you’ve picked and washed your basil leaves, and it makes enough to accompany 1 pound of pasta, whether you opt for trenette or linguine, plain old spaghetti, or a shorter pasta like trofie, (twisted, spiral-shaped). When serving with pasta, thin the pesto with a couple of tablespoons of the hot pasta cooking water before tossing everything together. To store it, coat the surface with a thin layer of olive oil to preserve its vibrant green colour and place in the refrigerator for a few days, or in the freezer for a few months. Now a taste of all that freshness would certainly brighten up a snowy winter evening.
3 cups packed tender young basil leaves
3 heaped tablespoons pine nuts
3 fat garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife and very finely minced
1½ teaspoons coarse salt
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil or more to taste
½ cup freshly grated cheese, preferably a mixture of Parmigiano and an aged Tuscan pecorino
Put the basil, pine nuts, garlic and salt in a food processor or blender and process steadily while you add the oil in a thin but constant stream. The sauce should achieve the consistency of a slightly grainy paste but not a fine puree. When the sauce is the right consistency, transfer it to a bowl and, using a spatula, fold in the grated cheese. If the sauce is too thick, work in more olive oil.
Note: Pesto can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or in the freezer for a few weeks. If you plan to store it, leave the cheese out. Transfer the pesto to a refrigerator container, pour a thin film of oil over the top, cover, and store. When you’re ready to use it, let the pesto thaw if necessary, then stir in the oil on top and the grated cheese.
Makes about 1 cup, enough for 1 pound of pasta.
THE EX-PRESS, August 17, 2016