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 severaltimes 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?
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.
*If you are going to use pine nuts, make sure you use a high quality nut, either from the US or Italy. Try to avoid nuts from China or Russia as these have been linked to a (usually temporary) condition called "pine mouth" which causes everything to taste metallic.