Pesto and I had a bit of a rough start. I first tried it on a pizza and I didn’t like it. We were sitting in a North End pizzeria in Boston, on a middle-school trip, and a girl I thought was amazingly cool and knew all things worth knowing, ordered a pizza with pesto. I had no idea what it was, and was too shy to ask, not wanting to seem even less cool than I already was.
A few minutes later it arrived, golden and bubbling, studded with green, oily blobs of pesto. It was potent and garlicky-smelling, but it wasn’t calling out to me. My suspicions proved right – aside from not looking good, it also wasn’t very good. It tasted stale, rancid, and too oily. Looking back, I realize it wasn’t very good pesto, but back then I just thought pesto wasn’t for me. I didn’t know the difference between good and bad.
In retrospect, I can tell you that what probably happened in this non-descript, very mediocre pizza parlor was this: a jar of premade pesto (made when? and by whom?) was opened, spooned onto a chewy pizza and served to hungry middle school kids. We ate it because that’s what middle school kids do – they eat pizza. Without counting calories or slices, without blotting the oil – teenagers are pizza fiends. We were no different. But I do remember the experience well enough because it would be years before I would try pesto again. My goodness – how many years have I lost?
I do remember having homemade pesto at friends’ homes – made by their mothers, grandmothers. It was indescribable. Intensely-garlicky, nutty, aromatic and textured – pesto was made in small batches, always fresh, and always by hand. I know a mezzaluna was involved. I also remember overhearing that one should never ever make it in a food processor. Because what you get in return is a paste – and pesto is anything but that. Still, it didn’t sink in until a few years later, which brings us to roughly today.
This year, for no apparent reason save for my cravings, I’ve been on a ravenous pesto kick. I have been trying it in restaurants, experimenting with ingredients and proportions, dabbling with various techniques. I’ve made it by hand, by food processor; I’ve purchased it at high-end purveyors. Something, somehow, was still missing.
One night, while trying to figure out what to make for dinner while Andrew was en route back from work, I decided to google “pesto technique”. I had a bunch of basil lying around and I also just picked up some fresh pine nuts, Parmesan, and fresh ricotta. Did you know if you enter “pesto technique” in the search, the first result that pops up is Heidi’s instructions over at 101 Cookbooks? Heidi knows her pesto, and not only that – she knows how to make your pesto taste just like a pesto an Italian grandmother would make.
Heidi emphasizes chopping everything by hand and, and this is important, not blending everything together. A pesto should not look or taste like a paste. It should have separate flecks of flavor, little bursts, surprises – when you taste it. Apparently, if we’re going to get really authentic here, and we should – you should make pesto only with young basil leaves, which in the US are easy to find in the spring, but during the majority of the year, you’ll most likely be out of luck. That is unless you grow your own basil.
While I didn’t have a mezzaluna on hand, I followed Heidi’s instructions to a tee – and the results were spectacular. The beauty of making your own pesto is that the freshness and brightness of flavors can never be recreated from a premade version. Yes, chopping everything finely by hand might take you a little bit of time. It is certainly more time-consuming than whirring everything together in a food processor. But the results will also differ. Your hand-made pesto will be full of surprises both in flavor and texture while your machine-made one, while it will certainly be tasty, will suffer on the texture aspect.
A mezzaluna is on my list of next things to buy for the kitchen, and I plan on growing my own basil on the windowsill this spring, so I’m excited about making pesto with the young leaves. In the meantime, my local grocer’s bunches of lush, verdant basil will just have to do – plus, I keep hearing, spring is just around the corner.
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
While you can certainly place all the ingredients in the food processor and have pesto ready in 2 minutes, I encourage you to try to do this by hand. I used a large chef’s knife because I’m still lacking a mezzaluna. I won’t lie to you, you’ll be chopping for solid 15 minutes at least (which might seem like a long time to chop), but I guarantee you that you’ll be blown away by the difference in texture. The flavor, too, will be brighter – the garlic will be garlicky-er; the basil – more basil-y; the pine nuts – a bit nuttier. It’s good, so good in fact, that you might make it several nights and a row and your boyfriend (or girlfriend) won’t even complain that you’ve been eating pasta for several days on. And here’s a bonus, if you live in a tiny apartment with an even tinier kitchen and almost no counter space – this recipe should be exciting. With no food processor necessary, you now have an additional dish to whip up for yourself or when you have company. With a dollop of fresh ricotta, this humble meal can be, easily, turned into a feast!
1 large bunch of basil, leaves only, washed and dried
3 medium cloves of garlic
one small handful of raw pine nuts
roughly 3/4 cup freshly grated, loosely packed Parmesan
A few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
1. Start chopping the garlic along with about 1/3 of the basil leaves. Once this is loosely chopped add more basil, chop some more, add the rest of the basil, chop some more. Continue to scrape and chop, gather and chop. At this point the basil and garlic should be a very fine mince. Add about half the pine nuts, chop. Add the rest of the pine nuts, chop. Add half of the Parmesan, chop. In the end you want a chop so fine that you can press all the ingredients into a basil “cake” – i should be a tightly packed square. Transfer the pesto “cake” to a small bowl (not much bigger than the cake), add the rest of the Parmesan, and stir well to combine. Cover with a bit of olive oil, it doesn’t take much, just a few tablespoons.
2. You can set this aside or place it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. Just before serving give the pesto a quick stir to incorporate some of the oil into the basil.
Makes about 1 cup.