I don’t like to make promises I can’t keep, and last week I promised myself that I’m going to eat pesto every day for the rest of my life. So far, I’ve made good on that promise.
The only thing that might thwart me is a lack of big, copious bunches of fresh basil. Or my pounding arm wears out. No taking bets out there on whichever comes first, but I have a pretty good idea which it’s going to be.
The word “pesto” is a derivation of the Italian word for “pounded” so it should be made in a mortar and pestle to be true pesto. “Blended basil sauce” just doesn’t sound interesting to me.
And speaking of interesting, I finally found a gorgeous old French mortar at the Nice flea market, but at 160€, and weighing it at 50-plus pounds. But I left it behind, which is a decision I now regret since it was so worn and beautiful. I’m not hedging my bets that it’ll be there the next time I get back to the Côte d’Azur, but hope springs eternal, and those mortars don’t seem to be nearly as abundant as hope around here. (If anyone lives down there and wants to haul it up, I’ll spring for a seat on the TGV for you. Second-class, though*.)
Classic pesto is made with pine nuts in it, or sometimes walnuts. But the French version, pistou, usually leaves them out, so I often make it without. Pesto made with nuts has more ‘clinging power’ to it and hangs on to pasta better. But sometimes I prefer the lighter taste without them, preferring to let the bright-green taste of basil and pungent garlic shine through. If using nuts, be sure toast them first to bring out their nutty flavor.
Surprisingly, in Paris, it’s hard to find the big, abundant bunches of fresh basil. For some reason, Monoprix supermarkets usually have the most giant of the bunches you’ll find within le périphérique. I find the fresh basil on offer at the outdoor markets often wilted and puny and it’d take quite a few bunches to make a decent David-sized batch of pesto. I did find some lovely basil this morning at the Popincourt market, but you have to kind of search it out.
It can’t be that hard to run bunches of basil up from the Côte d’Azur on the TGV, would it? It’s pretty quick, eco-correct, and cheap—I’m sure it wouldn’t require a first-class seat either.
Although people think of pesto as going with pasta, roasted or boiled (then cooled) fingerling potatoes can be tossed in pesto for quick potato salad. Pesto can be spooned over a platter of sliced tomatoes and avocados with crisp bacon chunks, stirred into a bowl of sautéed corn kernels, and tossed with pasta with green beans or grilled radicchio, if you’re lucky enough to have a grill. If using pasta, give it a try with whole-wheat (or farro) noodles: I think the earthy taste of whole-wheat hits it right on with the herbaceous pesto. A few cubes of feta on top never hurt, either.
(One of my fromagers was completely shocked when I told him I crumbled feta on pasta. Why does everyone around here think I’m so strange?…)
The best way to toss pasta in pesto is to drain the pasta, reserving a bit of the pasta water. Return the noodles to the pan and toss with pesto, adding a bit of the pasta water if you want to thin it out a bit. To today’s batch, I add quartered cherry tomatoes and slender green beans.
Wonder what I’ll do with my pesto tomorrow?
And the next day. And the next.
I’ve got to keep that my promise I made to myself.
(*Unlike my promise to pay for someone to bring up that mortar. I was just kidding.)
Four servings (about 1 cup)
Be sure to rinse and dry the basil leaves well. I give mine a shake outside my kitchen window. I haven’t lost a leaf yet. (Although some of the people down below on the sidewalk might wonder where that basil-scented mist is coming from.) Those of you who prefer to live less vicariously can use a salad spinner or shake them in a tea towel.
If using a mini-chopper, or similar device, simply blitz all the ingredients together until as smooth as inhumanly possible.
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
- 5 cups (20g) loosely-packed basil leaves
- 5 tablespoons (75ml) olive oil
- 2 ounces (60g) grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup (30g) pine nuts, toasted
1. Smash the garlic and salt together in a mortar and pestle until smooth.
2. Coarsely chop the basil leaves, then add them to the mortar and pounding them into the garlic as you add them.
3. Once well-mashed, when they’ve become a fairly-smooth paste, pound in the olive oil, adding it a spoonful at a time, until well-incorporated.
4. Lastly, pound in the cheese, then the pine nuts.
5. Continue mashing everything for a few minutes until the pesto is as smooth as possible.
Fresh pesto should be served within a day or two after it’s made. Otherwise the garlic can become overpowering. It can also be frozen for a few months, if well-wrapped.
Curiously, although I don’t think it’s so traditional, I used to eat at a pasta restaurant in San Francisco that made the best pesto pasta. It was simply prepared and delicious; just a hot pasta tossed with lots of pesto. It wasn’t until I ate their alone and sat at the counter, which had a view of the kitchen, and I saw the cooks adding almost a full stick of butter to each pasta as they swirled it in the pan with the pesto!
I don’t think you need to eat a stick of butter with your pasta, but at the risk of upsetting traditionalists, a small pat of butter does round out the taste of the pasta pretty well. Some folks sneak in some Emmental cheese.