A Pesto Primer

By on July 17, 2012
pesto alla genovese

Guest post by – Ciao Chow Linda –

First let me banish any misconception that pesto refers only to the concoction using fresh basil as the major ingredient. The word pesto simply means anything that’s pounded, so you could have pesto made using artichokes as the base, or olives, or even celery for example. For this post, it’s all about the basil though, and the classic pesto alla genovese, from the region of Liguria. It may come as a surprise to many of you, but the traditional pesto alla genovese is frequently served using trenette or linguini, and includes potatoes and green beans, cooked in the same water as the pasta. Alternatively, another authentic shape of pasta used in Liguria, is the little twisted squiggles called “trofie” – more on those below.

My friends from Liguria tell me that the smaller leaf basil provides a much more flavorful pesto, but I never actually put it to the test – until now that is. My friend Dorothy, whom I’ve written about before here and here, is responsible for creating a vegetable garden at a local elementary school in Princeton. This year, she received a generous gift of 45 basil plants from Cross Country Nurseries in Rosemont, N.J.

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Among the plants are several varieties of small leafed basil, including the ones below that I harvested to make the pesto in the first photo.

Here’s a photo of part of the garden, including some of the various basil plants. I never knew there were so many varieties of basil. Cross Country Nurseries carries 94 different varieties — from lemon basil, lime basil, cinnamon basil, anise basil and many others — all with different aromas and tastes.

This is just one of the purple leafed varieties.

This one’s serrata basil.

I think this was an anise flavored basil.

This is a lettuce-leaf basil, and Dorothy says it’s great for using as a wrap instead of bread. I can’t wait to experiment more with some of these varieties – in salads, in main dishes, even in desserts. But for now, it’s back to the small-leafed variety for the pesto.

The classic pesto alla genovese uses pine nuts, but I couldn’t find any European pine nuts locally (next time I’m in Philly I know I can get them in the Italian neighborhood on Ninth Street). I’m not eating Chinese pine nuts, since so many people have reported pine nut syndrome as a result. As a substitute, I used pistachios, something I’ve been wanting to do since I ate a fabulous pistachio pesto at Le Virtu in Philly. Make sure you use good quality extra virgin olive oil too. This one was from Casale Sonnino, a villa and farm owned by friends of mine in Italy. It’s simply the best, and you can be guaranteed that it’s unadulterated oil from olives on their property outside Rome that they take to the mill themselves. They take orders, and also rent out their villa to vacationers, so check out their website here.

I figured since I had the tiny leaf basil, why not try to make pesto the way it’s been made for centuries in Italy — using a mortar and pestle. Decades ago, my brother-in-law gave me an antique mortar and pestle that was actually used at one time as a pharmacist’s tool, and maybe I should have just kept it on the shelf. After years of use, it cracked last year while I was pounding something in it – I don’t remember what. I do use a mortar and pestle occasionally for crushing rosemary into paste and sometimes to break up hard seeds like coriander or black pepper corns. So this year, I replaced the old antique apothecary’s mortar with another marble one – from Williams Sonoma.

It really takes a lot of elbow grease to pound those little leaves, garlic, salt and oil into a paste. Enlist the help of someone if you can and take turns (or surrender to the food processor).

When it’s sufficiently pounded (or sooner if you can’t go any further), boil the potatoes and add the green beans and the pasta in the same water after the potatoes are about 10 minutes from being done.

Drain everything and mix with the pesto and a healthy handful of parmesan or pecorino cheese. I can say that the small basil leaf was very flavorful and pungent, and along with the pistachios, I didn’t miss the pine nuts at all. But one thing that always bothers me is how quickly the pesto goes from bright green to a drab olive green.

So I set off to do an experiment of blanching the basil leaves before making the pesto. This time I made the pesto using my first harvest of the season from my garden – of the regular large-leafed variety.

My neighbor’s daughter Janie was my sous chef, helping me pluck the leaves from the stems.

We blanched the leaves in boiling water (count to 10 and then remove the leaves).

Immerse them immediately in an ice water bath.

Squeeze the water out of the leaves.


And this time I used the food processor, not the mortar and pestle. The color was a vibrant green.

Check out the difference in the colors of the basil – on the left is one made with non-blanched leaves and on the right one made with blanched leaves.

Insung and her daughter Janie were impatient to taste the finished product, but bloggers have to get those pictures first! This version was made using toasted almonds instead of pine nuts, and trofie pasta.

Normally, when the pesto hits the hot pasta, the color darkens to a drab green, but blanching helped it keep its bright color for quite a while.

Now that basil is flourishing in gardens everywhere, make sure you make enough pesto to put away for the winter. It freezes beautifully, provided you omit the cheese until you’re ready to serve.

Pesto Alla Genovese
printable recipe here

The amounts aren’t exact. A lot depends on how firmly you pack the basil into the measuring cup, how large the garlic cloves are, and of course, your taste buds.

  • 4 cups basil, loosely packed
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup Italian pine nuts, toasted, or pistachios (salted or unsalted), or toasted almonds or walnuts
  • extra virgin olive oil – as much as two cups, as needed to obtain a loose pesto.
  • 1/4 cup – 1/2 cup parmesan cheese (or pecorino if desired)

If using a food processor: Tear leaves from stem, wash, dry and place in a food processor, along with the garlic, nuts and a small amount of the olive oil. Start with 1/2 cup and keep adding more until it flows smoothly when you dip a spoon into it, but not so thin that it falls off in a stream. Use your judgment.

Add parmesan cheese if serving immediately. If you’re planning to freeze it, don’t add the parmesan cheese until after you defrost it and are ready to serve.

If using a mortar and pestle, start with the washed and dried basil leaves, garlic and nuts and add a small amount of coarse salt to help break down the leaves. Pound with the pestle and slowly add a little bit of olive oil. Keep working the mixture with the pestle and add the rest of the oil as needed. The process takes a lot of patience and time.


Originally posted on Ciao Chow Linda.

About Ciao Chow Linda

Linda Prospero, is a Princeton, N.J. writer who has lived in Italy and continues to travel there to visit family and explore all its regions. She spent her career as a journalist, and her articles have appeared in publications ranging from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times to the Times of India. But her real passion is Italy -- its art, literature and food -- and sharing that love with others. She is author of the popular blog, Ciao Chow Linda. In my last life, I was a journalist in NYC, but left the rat race to live in Italy for a year with my husband. Back in the states now, I have created this blog to combine my interests of writing and photography with my love of food and travel.

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A Pesto Primer