The Terrifying Truth about Pesto

Before I share my recipe with you, I am going to need to tell you something terrifying.

I have seldom been more outraged than when someone stole my basil plant off my apartment porch in Tempe, Arizona. I had raised that little baby from a seed – from a seed – and some monster came and took it from me. Can you imagine? I think it was the same person who stole the tire off my thrift store bike that I used to ride to school there. I mean, why? It was not a great tire. Are you just mean? Anyway.

Pretty much since I’ve been settled anywhere, I’ve tried to keep a little garden and I ALWAYS have basil. When I lived in Tucson, I once brushed off my hands after planting some seeds and a plant sprouted in the well of my orange tree. The regular irrigation and sunshine produced the most enormous basil plant I’ve ever grown, big enough that my husband became worried about the survival of the citrus tree. I ended up lopping off big branches and taking them to trade with our neighborhood Italian restaurant, Fiorito’s, which is now closed. They gave me meals in exchange for it, I had so much. (As a side note, their lasagna was the best ever. If anyone out there knows the former chef, please oh please get me that recipe. I am serious.)

In my garden right now, I have three sweet basil plants growing. I also am confident that I will have volunteer Thai basil come back, as it does each year. I have three plants because I just like to be certain that I will have enough basil for my family’s pesto needs. Our needs are significant, y’all. We also like caprese salads a lot, so I simply can’t mess around when it comes to having sufficient basil.

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I am a reader of recipes. When I make a dish, I generally like to consult several cookbooks in advance. Then, I concoct one of my own based on multiple recipes and my own tastes. Happily, this method appears to be what Italians like too. They’ve been gleefully mashing up garlic and pine nuts with olive oil for millennia, apparently, and about 150 years ago started adding basil to the recipe. When we spent a little time in Italy, I tried several varieties of pesto. We had a favorite local delicatessen in Arezzo that carried their fresh version that we brought home regularly. The worst version came from one in which the chef added cashews, incapacitating three unsuspecting allergic diners, including my daughter. I say this not to point fingers, though it was somewhat terrifying, but to show that Italians like to experiment with ingredients too, even with things that are “traditional.”

Ultimately, I came up with my own version that was worthy of writing down, and it’s what I have used and shared for years. Before I share it with you, though, I am going to need to tell you something terrifying.

Terrifying Truth #1: Using the Mortar and Pestle Makes Significantly Better Pesto

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I’m sorry. I didn’t want that to be true! I love the food processor and it is what I have used for years and years. Also, when you use the food processor, you get a greater volume of pesto, which means you can save half for the winter months. And that is fabulous! I know all of this, and you can continue to use the food processor. I get it. But ever since we started using the old fashioned method with a mortar and pestle, we haven’t been able to go back. The taste of the pesto is so much better that it is worth the effort for us. And it’s a group effort – we all take turns mashing up the basil and garlic. The reason it is better is because of another terrifying truth.

Terrifying Truth #2: The Basil Screams When You Mash It

Okay, that may be a small stretch of what you would call “truth,” but work with me. Did you know that when plants get munched on by bugs or mammals, they cry out?  Read this amazing story for more detailed info: https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2014/04/29/307981803/plants-talk-plants-listen-here-s-how

The summary is that plants can send chemical signals to other plants or even to predator bugs and those plants and bugs respond. Some even send signals underground or through ultrasonic clicks. I love this science!

So, I am using that science to say that smashed basil releases different chemicals than cut basil. And it releases its beautiful and fragrant oils in a different way. So the metaphorical screams of the basil make for better eating. It makes me slightly sad and also puts me in mind of A Wind in the Door, the sequel to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. But purge the idea of sentient plants from your thoughts and pound that basil up, friends! Here’s how:

Basil Pesto

2 cups fresh basil, well packed
4 garlic cloves
4 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted and cooled if you feel fancy
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (or less) olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup freshly grated Romano cheese

Pesto is completely dependent on the quality of your ingredients. Do not use some crappy olive oil. Get the good stuff. Your garlic matters. Your cheese matters. GET THE GOOD STUFF.

In the food processor, process the first three ingredients until finely chopped. Then gradually add the oil and salt until blended. Add the cheeses and pulse a few times until blended. Voila!

By hand (mostly): Put the garlic with the salt in the mortar. Smash that stuff up until it looks more like mayonnaise than garlic. There should be no shape to your pieces. Now add the basil a little at a time and pound the heck out of it. It will start releasing a scent that will make you need to burst into song, so you should plan ahead. I like to listen to Mariza about now. Yes, she’s singing in Portuguese but her gusto matches this phase of pesto preparation very well, I think.

Now, I do use a mini food processor for the pine nuts. Others use the mortar for this too, but I am usually out of room.  I scrape my smashed glory into the processor with the already chopped nuts and add the oil and blend briefly. I use less oil for this version, because it is so juicy. Like even half as much oil as with the food processor version. And when I say scrape, you better do that. I want all the juices. That basil will not have screamed in vain, I tell you. Then add your cheese and pulse briefly until combined. Taste for salt and cry just a little at how good it is.

To serve, put a cup of either version in a large bowl for 1 pound of pasta. Actually, we’ve been loving gnocchi with pesto, so give that a try some time. While your pasta cooks, stir about 1/4 cup of light cream into the pesto and give a few twists to a pepper grinder. Drain the pasta briefly and then toss it into the bowl with the sauce and give it a stir. Serve nice and hot!

Also, you can freeze any prepared pesto easily. I freeze it in one-cup portions for easy winter meals. And yes, the cheese freezes up just fine. Don’t stress about it. Enjoy!

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Author: entertaininganthro

I have a Ph.D. in Anthropology and I'm happiest when learning about a new place and the people who live there.

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