Did you ever think that a simple mixture of garlic, pine nuts, basil, olive oil, hard cheese, and a pinch of salt, ground together in a mortar and pestle, can have you on your knees thanking Mother Nature for the blessing of her bounty?
Behind her though, are the Italians (specifically from the Genoa region), that are the geniuses that put these ingredients together to create the mesmerizing concoction - pesto alla genovese.
The root word of pesto is “pestare” meaning to pound or crush. The traditional way to make pesto is revered, and for good reason. The mortar holds the ingredients and creates a surface for the grinding motion of the pestle. The weight of the pestle plus the pounding coax the essence from the ingredients.
Pine nuts bind together with the garlic with the help of a pinch of salt. Fresh basil leaves are added along with a drizzle of olive oil and vigorously worked into a paste. Then the hard cheese is stirred in at the end, rounding out the flavours.
Pine nuts create a velvety base. Garlic shouldn’t be too spicy as it will overpower the other ingredients. The freshest basil leaves should be used, with no stems. The olive oil should be mild enough to allow the basil to remain the front-runner but distinct enough to add flavour. You can’t go wrong with Parmesan or Pecorino to inject a luscious mouth feel.
Everything pounded together tastes fresh and vibrant - alive even. The colour - bright green. The texture - smooth with small, delicate pieces of ingredients dotted throughout the sauce.
Where does tradition part ways with ease and modernism? Lemons weren’t traditionally part of the pesto recipe. Does it need it? Not really. However, they do add another bright, delicious layer to the flavour profile.
What other updates to the traditional pesto alla genovese exist? Although pine nuts are the classic nut, walnuts can stand in with ease. Macadamia, cashew, and almonds will also make a great substitution. If you are not a fan of nuts, then try pumpkin seeds.
Basil can be changed out completely or go half and half with almost any green leaf or herb you can find. No matter what green, nut or seed you use, pesto can withstand the pounding. You don’t even need cheese if dairy is off the menu.
While it doesn’t take long to make pesto with a mortar and pestle, it is extremely quick to whip up in a food processor. The purists would scoff at using such a method; however, a food processor still makes an amazing pesto. Whether you enjoy the smallest bits for texture or pureed to a velvety consistency. It’s all good. Very good.
Using this basic recipe as your guide to all things pesto allows you to substitute many different kinds of greens and nuts or seeds to create unique and flavourful combinations depending on your preferences, time of year and what you have in your fridge and pantry.
Pesto can be stored in the fridge for about a week and frozen for 3 to 6 months.
Some lovely options are:
For winter: kale, rapini, swiss chard, collard greens
For spring: spinach, parsley, cilantro
Early summer: delicate tender garlic scape shoots
Summer: stock up on fresh, vibrant basil and arugula
Fall: dandelion, beet greens
Pesto is extremely versatile. I’m not sure if there is anything that doesn’t go well with pesto. You can add it to fish, chicken, steak, potato, pasta, rice, sandwiches, pizza, eggs, bake into bread, use it as a salad dressing, veggie dip, pork chops, and garnish for soup.
In case you are still unsure of what to make your pesto with or how to use it, you have permission to try it with anything and everything. You really can’t go wrong with just about any combination you choose.
Make any meal better with a dollop of pesto on top.