How to Make Pesto (plus a bit of a rant)
A few years ago on a trip to Rome, I met an American woman living in Milan who is married to an Italian man. She mentioned how her mother in law is so strict about the provenance of her food that she would never even consider eating pasta al pesto outside her home region of Genoa. At the time, I simultaneously scoffed at the idea and sat in awe of the level of conviction it takes to adhere to one’s beliefs regarding food in that manner.
Because I typically grow about a dozen basil plants every summer, I make batches of pesto and freeze them to eat throughout the year. What would her mother in law would think of my pesto? It’s not traditional in its execution, but the ingredients are (most of the time). She would probably be horrified that I use a food processor instead of mortar and pestle (the word pesto means “pounded” in Italian) but frankly, I don’t have the time or inclination to pound out quarts of pesto at a time. I also sometimes leave out the cheese and pine nuts and make instead a more versatile pistou (the French version) which freezes well.
Fast forward to yesterday when I was in my local Trader Joe’s grocery store and I picked up a bottle of their “Trader Giotto’s Pesto alla Genovese” to look at the ingredients. To my abject horror they contained things which no self respecting Genoese, let alone Italian, would put in their pesto sauce. Things like potatoes and cashews. Really?? And not in small amounts, either. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity. In this case it’s Basil, Safflower Oil, Potatoes, Olive Oil, Cheese, Cashews, Salt, Pine Nuts, Lactic Acid and Garlic. See anything wrong with that? I do. In what world is it ok to have more potato than olive oil in pesto? What’s with the bastardization of something so classic, so easy, that it only has five ingredients (basil, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts and garlic) in it’s most traditional, and in my opinion, best version?
But can’t pesto be adapted to include other nuts, different cheese, or even different herbs?
Of course it can. And I encourage you to play around with as many variations as you care to try. That’s not my problem here. My issue is calling it pesto Genovese when it contains safflower oil, potatoes and cashews which offends my sensibilities much in the same way I am offended by fake cheese, recipes using box cake mix as an ingredient, and Honey Boo Boo. Just don’t, please.
Below is my recipe for pesto/pistou. I don’t claim it to be perfectly authentic Genovese pesto, but at least it uses the traditional ingredients. Does the
world internet need another recipe for pesto? Probably not. But since my mission statement is to show people how easy cooking can be, I’d rather have you make this one than buy the one with potato and cashews in it. Plus, people keep asking me to publish a recipe because I’ve used it several times as an ingredient. Later this week, I’ll have another recipe with a new use for this sauce, one which is not on pasta.
What do you think? Do you make your own? Do you stick to the classic ingredients or do you adapt it? Do you buy pre-made pesto sauce?
How to Make Pesto Genovese
- 4 oz wt. fresh basil about 4 cups of leaves
- 1/2 oz garlic cloves about 4-5 each
- 4 floz extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts*
- kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste
- Pull the basil leaves off the stems. Discard stems.
- Place the leaves and the cloves of garlic in a food processor and pulse 15-20 times to chop up the leaves and garlic.
- With the processor running, slowly stream in about half of the olive oil and stop. Remove the top and scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Repeat with the rest of the olive oil.
- At this point you have made pistou. This is where I usually stop. I'll add the salt and pepper here and then freeze what I've made in small glass jars. If I want to make pasta al pesto, I'll add the cheese and pine nuts later. If you want to add the pine nuts and cheese, do not add the salt and pepper yet and keep reading below.
To include pine nuts and Parmesan cheese:
- Add in the pine nuts and pulse the processor 15-20 times to incorporate them. Remove the lid, scrape down the sides of the bowl and check the consistency. Pulse another 10 times if you need to chop the nuts more.
- Add the cheese, pulse 5-10 times to incorporate. Taste the pesto before adding salt and pepper because the cheese can make it taste saltier than expected.
To use on pasta:
- Cook the pasta until done. In a separate pan, warm some of the pesto (a few tablespoons of pesto per serving of pasta) and add the cooked pasta. A tablespoon of butter makes the sauce a bit creamier, or add a splash of the water the pasta was cooked in to help loosen the sauce. Add the pasta to the sauce, toss and enjoy.
To refrigerate or freeze:
- Please the pesto in clean glass jars or plastic containers. Leave about 1/2" of space from the top of the container. Top with 1/4" of olive oil. The oil will form a seal on top when it gets cold and solidifies. This will help prevent the sauce from molding in the refrigerator and prevent freezer burn. The sauce will keep a week or so in the refrigerator and a couple of months in the freezer.
I make my own.
Until last Summer, I thought/assumed “pesto” was as your recipe. As a newby to a CSA box, I was surprised to find all manner of “pesto” recipes when I went hunting for things to do with various extra greens. Learning that “pesto” alone meant pounded, and so included the basil/pine nut/olive-oil/parmesan/garlic version as well as (apparently) other combinations was a surprise.
Bottom line, I made a variety of “pounded” (food processor pounding!) green or greenish mixes that all froze well and I’ve enjoyed. My favorite was a sweet pea pesto with peas, lemon juice, olive oil, parmesan and sunflower seeds, garlic and I’ve continued to use lemon juice and sunflower seeds even when using basil as pine nuts were not U.S. sourced and also very spendy.
I use the various mixes as a spread on bread, often with goat cheese and red pepper as well as mixed with rice, in soups and occasionally on pasta. I’m looking forward to seeing your next recipe using pesto!
Liz- Sweet Pea pesto sounds great, especially if you spread it on bread with goat cheese!
I LOVE pesto. I make my own for two reasons: 1. my kids love it, 2. quick, easy dinner. But I rarely use traditional ingredients. I don’t buy pine nuts, so I use whatever nut I have on hand. I’ll usually use basil, but will add other fresh herbs if they’re in the fridge, such as Italian parsley or even cilantro. However – olive oil, garlic, Parmigiano Reggiano – always! Pesto as a sauce on potatoes, I understand. But, potatoes in pesto? Not so much.
Myra- Pesto ON potatoes, yes please. IN potatoes, no way!
I make my own, especially since I can’t have garlic. I plant a ton of basil every year. I put in garlic scapes for the garlic taste, and it works well enough. I also make a thai basil pesto using fish sauce instead of cheese, and peanuts or almonds in stead of pine nuts. Nomnomnom.
Garlic scapes are a great idea for a substitution! I also like the sound of a Thai version, perhaps stirred into a soup or curry.
As you know I’m pretty new to cooking. But I love pesto & will try your recipe. Last summer I made a sage pesto that’s great with pork, and I learned it at a Sur La Table cooking class. 🙂
Sage pesto sounds perfect with Pork!
I agree that the “traditional” Italian pesto is so classic it cannot be disputed as a staple to many recipes. However, I usually have an abundance of produce from the garden and farmer’s markets in the summer and am constantly looking to experiment with using it up. As a result, I get a little crazy with creativity and sometimes this produces genius and sometimes not. Here are some of my favorite pesto experiments; arugula/walnut, spinach/walnut, asparagus/pistachio, cilantro/jalapeno/lime, broccoli/almond, basil/cashews/coconut milk, artichoke/lemon, walnut/parsley… As you might have guessed, my mission is to have fun with it!
Karen- Nothing wrong with getting creative. Sounds like you are totally having fun with it.
I love this post…altho your grandmother got a little wacky with some things, she would have scoffed at the addtiion of potatoes to pesto, and no other oil except olive oil would do….
She did add the tiniest amount of water in the beginning to grind the basil, sometimes no more than what clung to the leaves after washing them…she would love the fact that you freeze so much. And as you know, it lasts forever 🙂 in the freezer, but if you add nuts or cheese not as long. I add it to everything: soups, eggs, any vegetable…
I am so glad to read your post on this! I have never understood anything other than the standard ingredients in pesto all Genovese that is marketed as such. I always make my own, and am not beyond having the basil share space with flat leaf parsley, but I am a huge pine nut fan and just can’t seem to make it with any other. The only other pesto I have ever made is garlic scape pesto, which is to die for! One of our farmer’s market neighbor vendors gave out the recipe and I am still hoarding some in the freezer. (Although I don’t eat it at work for lunch usually!)
We have goats and I make my own chevre (raw milk, so good!) and I love love love pesto on this :*) I also can hardly wait to see what else you are doing with pesto!
(And thank you for the tip on the pine nuts. I did not know this!)
Nina- Pesto and goat cheese is such a classic combination. Absolutely one of my favorites!
Um. Potatoes in pesto.
My wife and I started making pesto about 20 years ago. We usually stick to the tried and true. But we do enjoy the flavor of cashews or walnuts instead of traditional pine nuts. And we discovered if you lightly roast walnuts, it adds a bit of smokiness to the pesto. A turkey fontina sandwich with pesto is my favorite
Hi, I love your recipes! Well, the one’s without gluten, dairy, or sugar ;). Can’t eat that due to health problems. However, I was wondering if I can follow the recipe with everything except the parm? I wasn’t sure if you use just pine nuts and leave out the parm if it would be as good? Otherwise I as just going to make it without either. I really want to make your roasted veggies!! 🙂 And I’m kicking myself for not picking up basil and eggplant at the farmers market the other day.
Yes, of course you can leave out the Parmesan, I do that all the time!
You can replace the parmesan cheese with nutritional yeast flakes which are easy to find in most grocery stores. You probably won’t notice the difference and it’s so good for you!
I always make my own pesto. The reasons are very simple: my husband and son are both lactose intolerant and ALL pre-made pestos have cheese in them. That is a good thing too, because I started making homemade pesto: basil, pine nuts, sea salt and olive oil. I sometimes use roasted walnuts instead of pine nuts, which is a trick I learned from my uncle. It’s soo easy to whip up and freeze until its needed.
I am glad I found this post as now I see other versions as well and I am excited to try them out! Thanks everyone for sharing!
MY SISTER HAS A MACADAMIA TREE…… SUBSITITUE THEM FOR THE PINE NUTS. …YUMMY!
Mary @ Fit and Fed
Yup. I make my own pesto, too, largely due to ingredient lists like the one you shared. I’m not even willing to have any oil other than extra virgin olive oil in my pesto. I use mostly the traditional ingredients, not too different from yours, except that, like you, sometimes I leave out the cheese, and I have a light hand with the oil. I also use walnuts instead of pine nuts sometimes, and half basil/half parsley other times.
I have lived in Genoa for 4 years and the first time I tasted pesto made with basil from Pra I went to heaven. There are many ways to combine other vegetables and nuts etc. to make vegetable “pesto” but none of them are the real thing. Obviously basil from Pra (the original home of pesto) is quite hard to find so homegrown basil anywhere in the world (I grew it in Australia and made pesto threre) is fantastic.
For me, once you have tasted real Genovese pesto you can never go back, except for homemade. One way to use pesto that hasn’t been mentioned is with fresh homemade tomato sauce – Suco di Pomodori. It is called “Portofino”.
These recipes are from the “purist” genovese man I live with. They are meat free. Portofino shouldn’t have meat and the other is better stored without meat. Add it when required for bolognaise.
Please try the recipes without alteration the first time, just to assess the flavour of the basic sauces.
Suco di Pomodori:
Crushed tomato (for purests) or pulp (750 mL), finely chopped onion (1 large), garlic to your taste finely chopped (or sliced in larger pieces if you want the flavour but not to eat it), medium carrot (finely chopped), extra virgin olive oil (or the best you can get, but any other oil doesn’t cut it, no matter what anyone says). Some also like to add a pinch or 2 of peperoncino (chilli) but it must be slight to taste and not overpower the sauce.
Take large frying pan and pour in enough oil to cook everything except the tomato pulp. If you have a non-stick pan you need less oil. Slowly cook, stirring every so often until everything is soft (onion should be light brown, carrot well cooked but not “mushy”). Stir in a little salt.
Add tomato and mix thoroughly. Add a little sugar (yes it brings out the flavour in the tomato) and another pinch of salt.
Cook on low heat, stirring every so often until the liquid has reduced by 1/3 to 1/2. (I put a lid on the frying pan so it doesn’t reduce too quickly). The sauce should not be runny.
Add more pulp. Rinse out the bottle with a little water and add that or if you have used fresh crushed a little water. Reduce again until there isn’t any watery liquid visible then let the mix cool a bit. Tear up (don’t cut or chop) fresh basil and stir in. (This is the end of suco di pomodori).
Portofino: Stir pesto into heated Suco di Pomodori and either make lasagna or use with pasta. Taste and adjust seasoning.
I know it sounds endless but it is actually reasonably fast. The carrot and onion can be chopped in a processor and the pulp can be made that way too.
I usually make too much and then put the extra in a jar or 2 in the fridge. Both these are actually very easy and goes a long way if you have friends or family visiting.
If you are using any sauce with pasta you should put some (warmed) in a warmed dish, add the pasta and coat using a spoon and fork. Add extra on top if you wish but the sauce shouldn’t smother the pasta.
Sprinkle with fresh grated parmigiano (I like reggiano 36 months aged) or gran padano. It is more expensive so use the packet stuff if you must but there is nothing like the taste of it fresh.
Wendy, Thanks for all the info. I often add pesto to my tomato sauce so good to know this is an actual thing. 🙂
Lol I actually bought the stuff before reading the ingredients! And now I’m sitting here appalled. Potatoes?? I actually googled it and I can’t believe that you are the only other person upset about this. I’m glad I’m not alone. 🙂
No, you are not alone. My recommendation? Return the jar and buy the ingredients there to make your own. Trust me. 🙂
Oh, and thanks to you I googled “trader joe’s pesto” and discovered that this post is on the first page of the results. Thanks!
I think I just may do that. 🙂 I am really craving some authentic pesto! I haven’t found anything like what I had in Florence, but I think you’re right – the answer may be just making my own. 🙂 Thank you!
My wife and I are in Firenze (Florence) right now and our tour guide just told us that mashed potato is a very common ingredient to add to your pesto sauce in this part of Italy. It thickens it without changing the flavor.
Hi, I love this recipes!