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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Italian Fast Food: Pesto!

This week's entry will be about one of my family's favorite meals: Basil pesto with pasta. Pesto sauce originated in Genoa in northern Italy. The word pesto is derived from the Italian word meaning to pound or crush, from the same Latin root as pestle in English. Actually, classic Italian pesto is supposed to be made with a mortar and pestle. Unfortunately I am unwilling to do the hard manual labor required to make the sauce in that way. I understand that the old fashioned way is the preferable way and is supposed to taste much better than the one made with most people's preferred method, which is with the food processor or blender. If I decide to use the mortar and pestle method, I will definitely make a taste comparison and report back to you!

I have been making pesto sauce since we learned we could grow basil in the back yard, and if you didn't do some major harvesting, it would completely take over. The one or two leaves you pluck for flavoring sauces and other dishes simply were not enough, and if you freeze it, it turns into a black tasteless mush once defrosted. Not very appetizing. So pesto is the way to go.

Pesto sauce is so popular with my family, I became emboldened to actually smuggle (customs was interested in hair gel and nailclippers, I was lucky) a giant pillow of basil seeds from a garden store in Venice a few years ago. A garden store in Venice is odd if you think of it, all the streets are water and the backyards are stone. Italians, however, will always find a way. Anyway, the seeds only lasted two years and took a long time to germinate and still weren't altogether right...I guess they needed to be in Venice or at least somewhere in Sunny Italy and not a backyard in the Bronx. I got a few batches of sauce out of them, though.

I never been known to order basil pesto in a restaurant or buy it by the jar in my local Italian market. It never looks right! It always looks oily and loose, and way too finely pureed. I did decide to try it as a research project while dining with a good friend at a fine Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, Bello Giardino, the other day. I figured that with their spot-on meatballs (they won a 5 Borough Award for Best Meatballs: who knew there was such an award? Which restaurants are runners-up? I need to know this.) and almost perfect meat sauce, it was worth a try. Well, although tasty, their pesto sauce did not pass muster. It was laced with cream, way too bland and buttery tasting. It was a pale green, not a robust dark green like mine, and the cheese was probably parmagiana, which is way to subtle. At least for my taste. And where was the garlic?

My basil pesto is strongly flavored with extra virgin olive oil, basil and garlic and salty, zesty Pecorino Romano cheese. If I have pine nuts in my pantry when the basil is ready to pick, I add that. I add no other condiments. I do love a recipe with only five ingredients, sometimes four!

For the pasta, I usually use linguine, although spaghetti, fusilli, and wider fettucine works well too. In a pinch, I have used ziti or even gemelli. I prefer Barilla pasta, which has a wonderful texture. I don't know how they do it, but for the most part, unless you forget about it and cook it into total mush, it comes out al dente. Any pasta will work, although I think egg noodles are way too delicate.

Here is the recipe:


I have varied the amounts in the recipe so you can tailor it to your personal preferences.

1/2 to 3/4 cup of the best extra virgin olive oil you can afford
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup to 1 1/2 of grated Pecorino Romano cheese
3-4 cups of basil leaves, rinsed and stems removed
2-3 tablespoons pine nuts (optional)
1 pound linguine or other pasta, preferably Barilla

Boil water for pasta and cook according to package directions.

For this recipe you will need a food processor. If you have a blender, that will work as well but you must stop periodically to push down the leaves with a wooden spoon so they will blend more uniformly.

Some recipes call for placing the basil in the processor bowl or blender first, but I prefer to place the oil with the garlic in first and process for for about 20-30 seconds, and then add the pine nuts, process for 5-10 seconds until they too are fully incorporated. This way the garlic and pine nuts will be broken down and you will not find any errant pieces of garlic or nut in your final product. Then I turn on the food processor once again and add the basil through the feed tube until it is pureed, for another 20-30 seconds or so. With a spatula, scrape the sauce out of the processor or blender container and into a glass or ceramic bowl. Add the 1 to 1 1/2 cup of grated cheese to the mixture. Add more if needed. Some recipes call for salt and pepper, but I find the Pecorino Romano cheese to be salty enough, and the pepper unnecessary. Just make sure you do not use Parmigiana, because it is too subtle! The sauce should be thick, not be runny or oily. Add more grated cheese to make it the right consistency.

Cook the pasta al dente, which means in Italian, "to the tooth". It should be firm at the center, not mushy, and not too hard. When the pasta is done, save some of the pasta water. Rinse the pasta in a colander to prevent sticking, and place in a large ceramic bowl. I use a spaghetti server to make sure the strands are separated. Add the pesto sauce and mix with two wooden spoons, as if you were mixing a salad, using the pasta water by teaspoonfuls if necessary to make it easier to incorporate into the pasta. The sauce should adhere to the pasta completely. Totally green pasta! After the pasta is plated, your guests might want to add more grated cheese, so make sure that is available. Serve immediately, with a green salad with garden tomatoes with vinaigrette, and crusty Italian bread.

Italian fast food, with a minimum of fuss!

Enjoy the rest of the summer, it is going fast!


  1. If you want to post a comment, you have to sign up to Google or Yahoo. You don't have to use their services. I would appreciate it if you would go through the trouble of doing that, as feedback is important. Thanks!

  2. We also grow basil in our yard and I've been making my own pesto for the past few years, ever since a friend (not Italian!) gave me the recipe. It is basically the same as yours.I make several batches during the summer and freeze them in ice cube trays, then pop them into a freezer bag to last through the winter. I always enjoy the lobster ravioli with pesto sauce at Pasta Pasta.

  3. Basil grows best in full sun. You can plant it in containers and place on a porch, patio or fire escape. You could put five plants in a 6" pot making sure they are separated like the hearts on a playing card. You can use any kind of container you like but I like the plastic ones that look like clay. Water doesn't evaporate as fast from them so you don't have to worry too much about forgetting to water. If you go away, put a pan under each pot and fill with water so the plant will get enough water during the very hot days. Remember, the more you grow, the more pesto you can make. Once they grow their second set of leaves, pinch the new leaves off. This will keep the plant from growing too fast and will make it bushier. The more you cut, the better it grows. Good luck.