Pesto is a sauce originating in Genoa in the Liguria region of northern Italy, and consists of basil, parsley, cheese (usually Parmigianino), pine nuts, and olive oil. There is a French equivalent called pistou, with the major difference being the lack of pine nuts. That being said there are many, countless variations and ratios used the world over in which a combination of cheese, nuts, and major flavor ingredient come together with some oil to form a paste we as chef’s liberally call ‘pesto’.
Basil pesto is the mother of all pesto. There is no denying that a well made basil pesto is very tasty. But it isn’t just that easy. Store bought bottles, jars, and tubes are almost always inferior to what can be made from scratch. A well tested recipe is only the beginning, every leaf of basil is different, garlic can be very pungent, or flat, and while not one of the more traditional ingredients, acid be it lemon juice or red wine vinegar can give a flat pesto the exact punch it needs. Texture is another variable that stretches from a grinding or chopping the ingredients by hand to using a food processor, or the fine puree you’ll get from a blender. At the end of summer, when the basil plants have taken over the garden, remember this!
So there is a never-ending list of pesto recopies, but let me share mine.
1# basil picked from stems
Salted water to blanch
Ice water to chill
1 cup Parmigianino cheese
1 cup toasted pine nuts
One small clove of garlic
Juice of one lemon
¾ cup high quality EVOO
Salt and pepper
So, we’ve all seen the brown pesto with an oil slick over top. Not this way. Blanching the basil will keep the pesto green for as long as it’s ever taken me to use it up. It is essential that the pine nuts get roasted to a nice even brown, your nose will tell you when. A pesto with raw nuts will be completely different. On garlic, I hate the flavor of raw garlic, but the bite a small bit in this case brings something sassy to the pesto. The number one mistake in most pesto is too much garlic. Everything can go in a food processor together. I like a fine pesto, but the blender goes too far in my opinion, so I let the food processor go for about 5 minutes. The acid helps emulsify the relatively small amount of oil eliminating that unappetizing glop that usually covers a chilled pesto. Keep this paste in the refrigerator and use it on pasta, meat, bread, or anything else you like.
I’ve taken the liberty as a chef to remove basil and/or pine nuts from the basic pesto ratio and replace it while still calling my end product a pesto. I’ve done it will bell peppers, in which brunoise bell peppers replaced basil. Most recently I’ve been making Ramp pesto. I use the green ramp tops in place of basil with great success. The ramps don’t need to be blanched either. I do leave out the garlic in the ramp pesto as the ramps bring enough pungent flavors to the party. Arugula-walnut pesto is another modern interpretation of the classic pesto that has seen success in a variety of markets.
The process of making pesto is very easy. While the cheese and pine nuts might be pricey to begin with, pesto is a great way to stretch them out. Lastly, with the blanching method, beautiful pesto will last forever.