Classic pesto alla Genovese, made in 3 minutes, is a good way to use up perishable basil. And it has more uses than just on pasta!
To buy or to make?
I wouldn’t dream of making ketchup at home. I shudder before I make mayonnaise, although it’s more ‘who’s going to eat those quantities’ rather than a daunting difficulty level. I don’t do homemade mustard – does anyone?
It is sometimes a quandary between what you should buy and what you ought to make at home.
The above, plus puff pastry are the examples of things I’d rather not attempt in my kitchen, although so called rough puff is quite fun to make, albeit not the genuine article.
I sometimes make my own yoghurt; homemade stock is simply eliminating waste, and jams are either the way of handling a fruit windfall or a craving for apple marmalade.
Pesto is a little problematic. If I were Italian and consumed pasta as a starter course in my dinner, I’d be applauding and pounding basil constantly. But as I only use it occasionally (though that should change now), making it seems a bit superfluous in my kitchen.
I hate basil!
I do make pizza from scratch and use fresh basil leaves amongst its toppings. And every time, I'd be left with nearly a full bunch of basil that would invariably die on me within a day or two.
Basil is a fickle hothouse flower. I have a good track record storing other herbs for days. I wrap them in a damp paper towel, place it in a plastic bag and they will happily live in my fridge.
Not basil – wrap it lovingly, adjust the fridge temperature, place it in the best spot in the vegetable drawer, and the next day it’s all blackened and wilted.
I have tried freezing it and got a rotten mess. I have put it in a jar of water like a flower bouquet – it didn’t like it, except one freaky time when it actually started sprouting roots in that water.
Basil in a pot doesn’t grow back any leaves you pick. Basil planted in the garden dies of shock that someone dare presume it would thrive in English soil. And dried basil is completely flavourless and useless in caprese.
How to handle basil
That then is my justification for making pesto: to utilize the post-pizza bunch. It’s a ritual now: the day after the pizza day, it’s a pesto day.
Theoretically you can use the bunch whole, stems and any darkened leaves included. But since, as I mentioned, I don’t have too much use for pesto, I like to be picky and select leaves only, and unblemished ones as well.
If you use the blackened ones, pesto will taste fine but it will not be the brilliant emerald colour that it gets from the choicest leaves only.
What is pesto?
Pesto is a classic Italian sauce used to dress pasta. It goes back to ancient Roman times (of course it does) when it was called moretum and was quite a bit different. It was a paste of garlic and cheese, with some herbs, popular with Romans to the extent of poems being written about it.
Basil and the name ‘pesto’ made an appearance only in the 19th century.
The name simply means ‘crushed’ or ‘pounded’ which obviously gives free reign to the multitude of variations. And surely ‘pestle’, the mate to mortar, has the same word root.
Pesto alla Genovese is the classic, made with basil, pine nuts, Parmesan and olive oil. That’s also my recipe and my favourite type – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Others think otherwise, and there are zillions of pesto variations, made scot-free before purists because it’s pesto as long as it’s pounded (not that they ever do it by hand in the mortar).
It really is becoming an algorithm rather than a recipe: any herb plus any nuts plus any cheese (vegan included) plus any oil. One fine day someone will make a paste of chestnuts, thistle and Camembert mixed with melted butter and call it pesto.
How to make pesto
It couldn’t be easier. Mortar and pestle can be swapped for a mini chopper, food processor or a stick blender unless you like a challenge.
Into it goes the basil, toasted pine nuts, crushed garlic and grated Parmesan. A whizz to pack it all down is necessary before you add the oil if, like me, you use a mini chopper.
Then the oil goes in, some freshly milled black pepper and salt, but only after you’ve tasted it.
The proportions are, very roughly, equal weights of pine nuts and Parmesan, with nearly twice as much basil and nearly three times as much olive oil. But, as all Genovese families have their own unique recipes, flexibility is allowed.
Fresh pesto will keep in a jar, in the fridge for two weeks easily, but make sure to keep a layer of olive oil covering the surface.
How to use pesto
The Genovese staple is trofie or pappardelle with green beans and potatoes dressed with pesto. Outside Liguria, it’s the simplest way to sauce up any pasta shape.
My firm favourite is a super quick dinner of shop bought filled pasta, tortellini or ravioli, slathered with homemade pesto.
Apart from pasta you can spread it on toast and call it bruschetta. It’s lovely with freshly cooked new potatoes. You can spread it on chicken fillet before roasting it gently.
Omelette with pesto is a treat. You can liven boring boiled vegetables, broccoli or cauliflower, with a lick of pesto.
Dab it onto pizza or even replace tomato sauce with pesto if you’re brave. Stir it into yoghurt for a healthy dip or dilute it with water for a salad dressing.
I think I have just changed my mind about pesto being superfluous in my cooking.
More pasta sauce recipes
Tomato sauce made from scratch really is the best and it basically cooks itself. Italian staple, it can be used on pasta or pizza, for preparation of bolognese or to smother some delicious meatballs.
Cup mushrooms for the body, dried porcini for the flavour. A spoonful of cream and a thimble of wine. Thyme and parsley – et voilà! An all-purpose mushroom sauce.
Italian ragu, widely known as ragu Bolognese and commonly prepared with spaghetti outside Italy is made with beef and pork mince, soffrito and tomato sauce.