“I tend to rant on the subject of young basil and proper pesto. I have traced pesto to its region of origin, Liguria; to its city of origin, Genoa; and finally to its supposed neighborhood of supreme excellence, Pra’.
And that is where I learned that there is a fleeting moment for basil – about three weeks before it begins to flower. The sweetest, most perfect pesto is made with young basil, ideally when the plant is 6 to 9 inches tall. It should not have even thought of budding. Once flowering begins, that basic becomes bitter and tastes of anise.”
When cookbook author and radio personality Lynn Rossetto Kaspar writes this little prose poem in her new book How to Cook Supper, a two-paragraph description of pesto morphs into culinary romance bordering on infaturation. A perfect time, an exotic pilgrimage to the source, the rush of a purist’s devotion and affection. It’s about as close as you can get to Nabakov’s Lolita while browsing the cookbook aisle.
And while it’s beautiful to read and easy to revel in, her purist’s perspective might do a bit of injustice to one of today’s new classics.
Even though you might not capture fresh basil at its tender peak, you can get in the habit of making this sinfully easy kitchen staple with herbs available year round in the farmer’s market or grocery’s produce aisle.
It’s especially handy during the hot days of summer, when “quick cooking” meals encourage less time in the hot kitchen and lighter menu (even vegetarian) options. Or those times when five bucks seems a bit much to spend on an eight-ounce tub of this versatile (but simple to prepare) specialty.
Mix and Match
The classic pesto — an aromatic past of fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and ground parmesean cheese — hails from the coastal Italian region of Liguria, a stone throw from the French border and home to some of Italy’s most beautiful coastlines. Traditionally, cooks prepare the simple “pounded” sauce by smashing the ingredients to a smooth pulp using a marble “mortar and pestle” setup.
And here’s where many home cooks get hung up — with the ingredient list. Unless you’ve got a hedge-sized basil plant in your herb garden or a brother-in-law in the Mediterranean import/export business, some of the classic ingredients can get pretty pricy pretty quick.
But it doesn’t take much time to realize that pesto lends itself to substitution remarkeably well. Basil’s clean, herbal flavors dance on the tongue, but so can those of Italian flat leaf parsley or cilantro. Pine nuts might lend a smooth, earthy body to the sauce, but so can those shelled pecans you’ve saved since last year’s harvest at Uncle Dave’s farm. Gardeners will have a field day with this one — sage, mint, or any of the mild-flavored herbs can be used alone or in combination.
In fact, once you make a few batches, the mix-and-match nature of this versatile classic can become like a game. You don’t have to look very far to see recipes that take obvious glee in substituting components as they push the limits of the word “pesto.” Even the venerated lifestyle magazine Gourmet printed a recipe for a quick pesto that substituted frozen peas for basil, while leaving the other tradtional components intact. (Clarence Birdseye would be SO proud.)
Of course, even the starry eyed Kaspar realizes that her visions of the Platonic pesto is subject to the limits of a practical kitchen. After waxing erotic about the window of basil’s perfection, she returns, tongue in cheek, to a more earthbound perspective:
“In the real world, the pesto… could come from a jar, or, heaven forbid, from over-the-hill basil.”
Tools and Tips
All about process: Few home cooks keep a marble hand-grinder on their countertops, so the modern-day preference seem to be the omnipresent food processor. A few quick pulses can turn herbs, garlic and oil to a fine paste. You can add chopped nuts to the machine or wait until after the herbs and oil are thoroughly combined. Too much time in the processor will turn the nuts to a buttery consistency and eliminate the toothy crunch that nuts provide.
Quick Dunk: If the bite of raw garlic is too much for your tastebuds, pierce a few cloves kebab-style on a bamboo skewer and dunk them in the boiling pasta water for a minute or so. The quick blanching will take some of the edge off the garlic and make for a more balanced, aromatic final product.
Mash note: Though the food processor is an amazingly efficient tool for the pestofication process, it does lack one advantage of the mortar and pestle — the release of flavorful oils that can only come from using blunt force. One way around this is to put your herbs in a zip-top bag and bruise the leaves with any heavy instrument (a hammer-style meat tenderizer or a dowel-style rolling pin works nicely). When the color of the leaves darkens a bit, transfer the leaves to the bowl of your processor and proceed.
Bulk up and freeze: Once I get started in the pesto process, it makes sense to make WAY too much for one sitting and freeze the rest in ice-cube trays for last-minute suppers. Once frozen, each standard-size cube will sauce a pound of pasta just about perfectly.
Basic “Mix and Match” Pesto
- 1/3 cup toasted but unsalted nuts (choose one or mix: pine nuts, pecans, walnuts, almonds), chopped coarse
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped coarse
- 2 cups fresh herbs (choose one or mix: basil, flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, or other mild savory herb of your choice), destemmed and tightly packed
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
- ¼ cup finely grated hard cheese (choose one or mix: Parmesean Reggiano, pecorino Romano)
Place all ingredients except the cheese in bowl of food processor with steel blade attachment. Pulse the processor until the mixture becomes a smooth paste, adding a little extra oil if needed. Stop occasionally and scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally using spoon or plastic spatula. Empty mixture into small mixing bowl, fold in grated cheese until well integrated. (Can be refrigerated for 3-4 days if surface is covered with plastic wrap.)
Makes enough to thoroughly sauce 2 pounds of freshly-cooked pasta.
Pasta with Chopping-Board Pistachio PestoAdapted from The Splendid Table’s How To Eat Supper (
This variation of a simple pesto substitutes pistachios for pine nuts and a kitchen cutting board for traditional mortar and pestle. One knife, one pot — and Kaspar brings you a variation on a rustic home sauce from Umbria.
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper, or to taste
- 2 large garlic cloves
- 1 tight-packed cup coarse chopped shives or scallion tips
- 4 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, tight-packed
- 1/3 cup shelled salted pistachios or almonds
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- pasta and finish
- 1 pound spaghetti (or substitute linguine)
- 1 tablespoon exra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons fine-shopped red onion
- 1 cup (4 ounces) grated asiago cheese
Boil water for pasta. Prepare according to package directions. Before draining, reserve 1 cup pasta water. Drain pasta and set aside.
To make the pesto pile the salt and peper on a chopping board. Crush the garlic into it with the size of a large knife and fine chop. Add the chives, basil and onion and continue chopping unti l the pieces are cut very fine. Add the nuts to the pile and continue cutting until they are coarse chopped. Directly on th e board, blend in the oil. Taste for salt and pepper.
Film the empty pasta pot with one tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Saute the fine-chopped onion in it for 1 minute. Stir in the pesto. Warm it for only a few seconds to let the flavors blossom — do not cook it. Stir in about 1/3 of the reserved pasta water to stretch the sauce. Immediately pul the pot off the heat.
Add the drained pasta to the pot and tos with the pesto and cheese, adding more pasta water if the mixture seems too dry. Taste again for seasoning and serve.