A great pesto is the marriage of culinary skill with the freshest and best ingredients. This type of sauce is so flavorful that when you bite into a dish prepared with pesto, it bites you back. A classic pesto is made with fresh basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, and an aged hard cheese, usually Parmesan or Romano. While each of these ingredients is flavorful on its own, melded together they become a bold, garlicky, and spicy sauce which will make you sit up and pay attention to your food.
The best pesto is prepared in the traditional way, with a mortar and pestle. The word pesto shares the same Latin root as the word pestle, and means “to pound”. Until the 1980’s, pesto was not a widely known sauce, though it was long revered in the city of Genoa, in the Liguria region of Northern Italy. This region is blessed with a fortunate combination of the perfect climate and soil which supports the abundant growth of basil. There, centuries ago, the ancient Persian and North African technique of pounding herbs and spices was conjured into the mouthwatering sauce known as Pesto alla Genovese, or simply, pesto.
For many years pesto was prepared by hand in the traditional way, and this was one of the reasons the sauce was not widely used. It was simply not feasible to mass-produce pesto using the traditional method. The modern take on preparing pesto with a food processor makes mixing the ingredients a snap. For this reason pesto is much more accessible than it used to be, and is now widely available in supermarkets.
However, there is something to be said for traditional methods, particularly if you grow basil in your own herb garden! It is the crushing and mincing of basil that releases the wonderfully pungent aroma of the leaves. Grinding basil and garlic together with olive oil using a mortar and pestle creates a perfect union of aroma and flavor. Classically prepared, pesto has a dense and creamy consistency, while retaining a slight chunkiness imparted by the nuts and garlic. Though thoroughly mixed, it is still possible to distinguish individual parts and colors. Food processed pesto generally has a smooth pureed texture, and is uniform in color. Though flavorful, the texture of food processed pesto cannot compare with the nutty, rustic texture of traditionally prepared pesto.
A happy compromise between the ancient and modern methods of making pesto is to prepare it using a heavy chef’s knife and a cutting board. This approach follows the spirit of classical preparation by fine mincing ingredients by hand. Chopping and mincing the ingredients this way does require more time and effort than using a food processor does. However, it gives greater control over the consistency of the sauce, so that it is not a pureed, one note sauce but a blend of distinct flavors and textures.
To prepare this rustic peasant-style pesto:
Gather two cups of fresh basil leaves. Do not substitute dried basil for fresh. Also have ready two to four cloves of garlic, one half cup of pine nuts, one cup of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, and about one cup of a good quality extra virgin olive oil. As pine nuts are quite expensive, it is fine to substitute walnuts or pecans.
Rinse basil leaves and pat them dry between paper towels. Remove their stems. Chop leaves, mincing them fine. You don’t want to reduce the basil to a mushy consistency, but rather retain recognizable bits of leaf. It is best to work with manageable portions, mincing about one half cup of basil at a time. Peel and mince garlic fine. Chop pine nuts into chunks just smaller than a grain of rice. In a bowl, thoroughly mix the basil, pine nut, and garlic mixture, along with a pinch of salt. Add one quarter cup of olive oil and mix well. When the oil is completely absorbed by the herb and garlic mixture, add another quarter cup. Continue adding oil until three quarters of a cup have been added. Add the grated cheese to the basil and garlic mixture, stirring until thoroughly blended. The consistency of this pesto will be thick and slightly nutty.
Top the finished pesto with one quarter to one half cup of olive oil. The sauce will be dense enough that the oil will float on top and act as a preservative. Cover and store pesto in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Pesto can also be stored in the freezer for up to three months.
With flavor this big and bold, a rustic pesto will add zest to any dish. Homemade pesto has a texture and flavor far superior to any commercially prepared pesto sauce. Try the big crunchy texture on pasta or crusty bread to see why the best pesto is not a convenience food, quickly prepared. The very best pesto is prepared with attention and care, working with your hands and simple kitchen tools to create a powerhouse of a sauce.