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, which are a bit of a rarity in Paris. (Most of the great basil is found in the south, in Provence.) 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, although some prefer a blender or food processor. I used to be pretty dictatorial about using a mortar and pestle, but when making it for a crowd, as I sometimes do, I rely on my food processor to do the trick. A blender will work, too.
Classic pesto is made with pine nuts in it, or sometimes walnuts. But the French version, pistou, usually leaves them out, so I sometimes make it without. Pesto made with nuts has more “clinging power” to it and hangs on to pasta better. Pine nuts have gotten expensive but if you decide to use them, it’s worth shelling out the money for ones from Spain or Italy. If you want to be totally luxurious, shelled pistachio nuts are another way to go. But walnuts are fine, and are a less-expensive, but delicious, option. Be sure toast whatever nuts you use lightly before grinding to bring out their nutty flavor.
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 starch-rich pasta water if you want to thin it out a bit. I make sure there is a bowl of grated Parmesan cheese on the table for guests to add to their pasta, as they wish.
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
- 5 cups (120g) loosely-packed basil leaves
- 5 tablespoons (75ml) best-quality olive oil
- 2 ounces (60g) grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup (30g) pine nuts, walnuts, or shelled pistachios, very lightly toasted
- Smash the garlic and salt together in a mortar and pestle until smooth. (You can also use a blender or food processor. See headnote for instructions)
- Coarsely chop the basil leaves, then add them to the mortar and pounding them into the garlic as you add them.
- 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.
- Lastly, pound in the cheese, then the pine nuts.
- Continue mashing everything for a few minutes until the pesto is as smooth as possible.