Pesto is one of the most popular sauces/dressings with origins dating back to the medieval times. It’s definitely a favourite and a freezer staple in my household. I mean what’s not to love; delicious, fresh, saves the day when there is no time or will to cook… I personally will forever be grateful to whoever first came up with this recipe.
Apart from being one of the best and easiest ways to dress your pasta, pesto can be used to add extra flavour to soups, sandwiches and salads. It is widely used to add colour and finish dishes of all sorts. Different variations of pesto are made using other herbs and nuts. We see walnuts taking place of the pine nuts a lot as they are much cheaper. But if you ask me, nothing can beat a Classic Pesto Genovese.
Originally from Liguria region of Northern Italy, pesto as we know it today was first made in mid 1800’s. But in the medieval times a simpler version was made using basil and garlic. Those days plenty garlic was used in these kind of uncooked food products for preserving because of its antibacterial properties. That’s probably why the official pesto recipe calls for one clove of garlic for every 30 basil leaves. Which I find a little too garlicky to be honest. Over the years I made countless jars of pesto, using different recipes and methods. Made it the way I learned from my mother-in-law, from my husband or tried recipes of famous chefs. And I came up with a recipe that is perfect for my taste and makes my husband very happy. Which is not an easy task when your other half is Italian and lived in Liguria region for many years, as they can be quite conservative with their food and how it should be made : )
Traditional Pesto Genovese is made using seven ingredients; basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, Parmiggiano Reggiano, Pecorino Sardo and salt. (three parts Parmigiano to one part Pecorino Sardo, Sardinian cheese made with sheeps milk). Only the freshest and youngest leaves should be chosen and the olive oil should be a mild, non aggressive one. If you can get them both from Liguria then you should count yourself lucky as it’s not an easy thing if you live outside Italy. But no worries, we can make a proper and delicious pesto using the best ingredients we can get. I still have to say that Ligurian basil isn’t famous for no reason. You can’t get that unique flavour and aroma in any other basil. I even brought some seeds back from Italy and grew them in my balcony but they weren’t the same. It certainly has something to do with the Ligurian soil and climate.
One of the most important rules of a good pesto is that all ingredients need to be raw. You’ll come across many recipes that ask for toasted pine nuts. It doesn’t benefit the sauce and it’s just not worth it. They are actually better raw for the creaminess they give the sauce. Then there is the question of food processor vs pestle and mortar. We all know that the latter is the proper way to go. Just look at the name; Pesto comes from the Italian word “pestare” which means to crash/mash. Pesto made using a pestle and mortar has more infused flavours and a silkier texture which coats the pasta better. But I have to admit to using a food processor most of the time as I always make loads at once. You won’t end up with an arm ache with the amounts I’ll be giving you, if you chose to use a pestle and mortar. And I’d really like you to have a go so you’ll see the difference for yourself.
Whichever way you choose to make your pesto you have to be quick. When you crush the basil it will start to oxidise and turn a darker colour. It is widely believed that Pesto made with a food processor would have a dark colour because of the knife and the heat the appliance might generate. Having made it both ways I can’t say to have seen a huge difference. Another thing to be careful about is how you incorporate the olive oil. Blending olive oil at high speed can give it a bitter taste/flavour. So make sure to give it short blitzes once you add the oil or just use a spoon to mix.
I’ve got a couple more things to say, then I promise to get to the recipe : ) Never add water to your pesto whilst preparing coz it’s a little thick (yes, I’ve seen recipes telling you to) As it is more a dressing rather than a sauce, never cook your pesto or put it on direct heat. It will lose some of its flavour and the colour. When you make pasta with pesto, transfer cooked pasta into a big bowl and then add the pesto. Always save some cooking water to loosen the pesto. If you add the pesto in to the hot pan, most of it will stick to the bottom.
I usually only use Parmiggiano Reggiano as Pecorino Sardo is not easy for me to get hold of. You can use a mixture of both as it is called in the original recipe. 1 part Pecorino Sardo to 3 parts Parmigiano Reggiano. Pecorino Romano is more widely available outside Italy but don’t be tempted to use that instead. Pecorino Romano is sharper and saltier then it’s Sardinian cousin and will be too strong for Pesto.
- 50 gr basil leaves (about 2 cups, without stems)
- 20 gr pine nuts (abour 2½ Tbs)
- 35 gr Parmigiano Reggiano (1/3 cup, finely grated)
- 50 ml extra virgin olive oil (about ¼ cup)
- 1 small clove of garlic (crushed)
- a pinch of salt
- To make the pesto with a pestle and mortar; crush the garlic with salt. Add pine nuts and continue, working the pestle in a circular motion until you have a thick paste. Start adding the basil leaves, a little at a time. Once the basil is nicely mashed and blended add in the cheese, incorporate gently, using a circular motion. Drizzle in the olive oil and mix well.
- If using a food processor; it's pretty much the same order. Start with blitzing garlic, salt and pine nuts.
- Once you have a smoothish paste mix in the cheese. After a couple of blitzes add the basil leaves.
- Blend using short blitzes, stopping and giving it a stir a couple of times, until you have tiny bits of basil.
- Lastly drizzle in the olive oil, give it a blitz or two and check for seasoning.
- Go ahead and make yourself a nice bowl of pasta, you deserved it : )
You can easily double, triple, quadruple the recipe. If you choose to make a big batch like I do (I usually quadruple) the best thing to do is to freeze the pesto. I find the ice cube trays are best for this task. You can remove the pesto cubes once they are frozen and place in a freezer bag. 4-5 cubes should be plenty to dress pasta for two people. Defrost at room temp.
As you know parmesan is a rather salty cheese, so don't be too generous with your pinch of salt. You can always adjust at the end.
You can slightly increase the amount of garlic to suit your taste.