A couple of recent articles renewed my interest in how people think about food and cooking. Some dishes hold the reputation of being difficult, complicated, and time-consuming. This series looks at three of these, and assures you that it’s not that hard.
Pesto (from Italian pestare, ‘to pound’), the sauce originating in Genoa, and classically made with basil, olive oil, parmagiano, and pine nuts, probably has as many variants as there are cooks. While I respect, revere, and relish the classic version, I have developed my own take on this sauce over the years. And isn’t that really what good cooking is about?
But when I saw this well-done, detailed post on Serious Eats last week, I had to jump into the fray. Well, there was no fray, but I had to say something.
Maybe it’s the technique more than the ingredients that makes people nervous. The “real” way to make pesto is to use a mortar and pestle and grind the ingredients into a paste. Nothing wrong with that. I’ve personally never been able to get the hang of the m&p, but then again probably didn’t give it enough time either. I am an impatient cook, and I use a food processor.
I am not alone. Lidia Bastianich, the doyenne of Italian cooking, and an owner of Eataly in New York, uses a food processor for pesto.
The ingredients for anything you cook are the most important, hands down. If you start with anything sub-par, it won’t be good no matter how you slice it. Maybe the most experienced and creative chefs can save a dish from the lesser raw materials, but most of us cannot. My guess is that Lidia has easy access to sublime olive oil, the best parmigiano-reggiano, the freshest, most fragrant basil, good pine nuts, and flavorful, not sharp, garlic.
I do with what I’ve got and what’s available in the Boston area. I am lucky to live near excellent cheese shops, good farmer’s markets and fruit stands, and several Trader Joe’s.
Here’s what I use and how I do it (photos to come next time I make pesto). It may not be the most transcendent pesto you’ll ever have, but it’s pretty darn good and easy to make.
Amounts approximate and fluid; feel free to scale up or down. This recipe makes enough sauce to use on pasta for 4-5 meals for two. I mostly use the pesto on pasta, but its uses are wide and varied: on chicken, as a spread for a sandwich, etc. etc.
Feel free to substitute nuts of your choice–make it your own!
2 tightly packed cups fresh basil (washed, stemmed)
1/4 to 1/2 cup Trader Joe’s California estate olive oil (it’s good and it’s cheap)
1 cup shelled pistachios (yes, I’m a monster!)
1 cup grated parmagiano-reggiano
1 clove garlic, smashed then minced as finely as you can
Salt (I use kosher) and pepper to taste
Put basil and olive oil in the food processor. (Start with less olive oil and add as you add ingredients.) Pulse a few times.
Add everything else to the food processor. Start with a bit of salt and pepper; add more if needed.
Run for 15-20 seconds, adding a drizzle of oil as it runs.
Stop and check consistency and mix. You don’t want it too smooth.
At this point I pack it into single-meal containers and freeze! It lasts pretty well for several weeks.