Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Elizabeth David, legendary English food writer, called basil pesto "The best sauce yet invented for pasta".  You may or may not agree with her, but we all can probably agree that basil pesto is a wonderful thing.  It is a way to preserve and enjoy the fragrance and flavor of fresh basil year round.

Basil pesto started in Genoa
Traditional pesto is an ancient dish originating in Genoa, which is located in the Liguria region of Italy.   Genoans would use Genovese type basil and Ligurian olive oil. The classic recipe also calls for pine nuts, fresh garlic and cheese - most commonly Parmesan.  A Genoan cook might substitute Pecorino Sardo cheese - a pungent Sardinian ewe's milk cheese - for some or all of the Parmesan.

Mortar and pestle or food processor?  The debate rages on.
The word "pesto" comes from the verb pestare, which means to pound or bruise.  A traditional Italian grandma would probably make her pesto the "old way" - using a marble mortar and a wooden pestle - adding one basil leaf at a time and using a little coarse salt to pound and bruise the basil into a smooth paste.  Or she might use a cleaver and a cutting board to turn the basil, garlic and nuts into a thick paste.  I have never made pesto by hand this way but I probably will some day - just to see if it really is better and if it really is all that much work.  Most people nowadays use a food processor.  Mark Bittman, a modern cookbook author who gets around, says that even though Italians say a mortar and pestle is best, "when you get into their kitchens" they use a food processor to make pesto.  And so does he.

Peggy's pesto law
There is no one right way to make pesto.  There are no pesto commandments.  But there is Peggy's law, which is simple and straightforward:  use only high quality fresh basil, fresh garlic and a good extra virgin olive oil when making pesto.  If you add cheese, use high quality cheese.  Don't use stale or rancid nuts.  This is not the time to use parmesan from a round, green cardboard can.

But other than Peggy's law, you have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to proportions.  See this array of books?  Twelve different basil pesto recipes.   Twelve different viewpoints on the proportions of olive oil, basil, garlic, nuts or cheese.  Virtually all recommended walnuts as an alternative to the harder to find and more expensive pine nuts.  And several suggested using pecorino cheese instead of or combined with Parmesan.  See why I am always encouraging you not to worry so much about exact measuring?  This is cooking, not carpentry.

Now that you know you can't get in trouble for making pesto the "wrong way",  I hope you feel less anxious.   I encourage you to taste and smell as you cook.  Observe the texture.  Channel your inner Alice Waters, who explained that when making pesto, she enjoys the "sensory experience of pounding it and smelling and tasting it as I go."  (Looks like she is a mortar and pestle girl.  At least some of the time.)

Basil pesto ingredients
(Note - Fresh herbs other than basil may be used to make a pesto. Some or all the basil can be replaced.  Some possibilities: parsley, cilantro, sorrel, mint, arugula (also called rocket).
This basil pesto recipe is mine.  It is a sort of consensus gleaned from my research. It is meant to get you started.   Feel free to adjust it to your personal tastes.

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves fresh garlic (about 1 t. minced)
2 cups lightly packed fresh basil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese
1/2 t. salt and 1/4 t. pepper or to taste
1/4 cup lightly toasted pine nuts or walnuts  (Note:  If you have access to Minnesota homegrown hazelnuts by all means try them in this dish.   We are going to do just that at the noon pesto demonstration at the Featherstone Farm strawberry social this coming Saturday at the farm.)

Pesto Preparation
Whether working by hand or with a food processor, pound or chop together the basil leaves, salt, garlic and nuts until they form a thick paste.  Do not over process.  Add the olive oil a little at a time and mix well with a whisk or wooden spoon.  Add the cheese last.  (If you are going to freeze the pesto some recommend not adding the cheese until the pesto is thawed and used.  I have done this both ways and either way is fine, I think.)

Pesto Storage
If you think the cookbooks were all over the map when it came to ingredient proportions, you would be amazed at the different advice on storage time and methods.
Refrigerate  - One book said the pesto could be stored up to five days in the refrigerator.   One said "indefinitely".  Several said 3-4 weeks.  Here is my advice:  You can store pesto in the refrigerator about a month IF you keep a layer of olive oil - about 1/4 inch - on top of the pesto and it is stored in a very clean (sterilized or at least scalded) and tightly sealed glass jar.

Freeze - If you want to store pesto longer than a month, freeze it.  Lots of people say to use ice cube trays.  I think that is a pain.  I suggest putting foil or waxed paper on a cookie sheet and plopping little pesto cookies on the pan.  Freeze.  As soon as the "cookies" are hard, lift them off and freeze in a plastic bag.

Pasta with pesto
Cook your favorite pasta.  Linguini is nice for this.  While that is happening, gently warm a pottery or other heavy bowl big enough to toss the pasta.  Put desired amount of pesto in the bottom of the bowl.  Drain pasta, saving a cup or so of the cooking water.  Put drained pasta into the bowl and toss with pesto.  Add a few tablespoons of cooking water and toss again until you have the desired consistency of sauce.

Pesto serving ideas - endless
Flavor soup - a spoon or two in tomato soup is excellent

Pizza sauce - spread thinly on crust. Try with sliced onions and peppers and black olives.

Spread for sandwiches or crostini

Use as a flavor concentrate to enhance stew, sauces or soups

Add with some mayo to potato salad made with new potatoes (and maybe some sugar snap peas)

Add to basic vinaigrette - use with sliced fresh tomatoes and mozarella

Use as a sauce for grilled or steamed vegetables, grilled fish or poultry

Put a little under the skin when roasting poultry

Topping for pizza, pasta, baked potato or polenta

Filling for an omelet

Tomorrow:  Hands On - Chopping, mincing and dicing


  1. Another wonderful post. I loved the picture of all your books. I hope you are having fun researching and writing for us. I certainly am enjoying reading everything. And trying new recipes, too!

  2. Yes I am having fun. Thanks for the positive feedback - keeps me going.

  3. Yay, Pesto! Thank you so much for posting these, I read them all the time. Also, I love the time you make pesto I'd love to see a picture of it :)

  4. Your Post is very useful, I am truly happy to post my note on this blog . It helped me with ocean of awareness i really appreciate it.
    traditional pesto