On hot days, we always seem to be looking for excuses to serve pesto. This
bold-flavored sauce is perfect for summertime – not only because fresh basil is
at its best and most fragrant, but also because pesto requires no cooking. We
like pesto not only on our pasta, but also in sandwiches with goat cheese and
roasted vegetables, on broiled or baked fish, mixed into rice or just spread on
bread and topped with tomato slices.
Pesto originated in Genoa, a city in
Liguria on Italy’s Riviera. When we ate fettuccine with pesto there, the sauce
was made the classic way, from fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and
freshly grated cheese. Some make the sauce with walnuts instead of pine nuts, or
combine both. According to Marcella Hazan, author of The Fine Art of Italian
Cooking, pesto “is one of the most typical products of Genoese cooking, and
contributes much to the distinction of that fine cucina.”
Genoese cuisine, pesto is used not only with pasta, but also with soups such as
minestrone or fish soup and with boiled potatoes. “The name pesto of course
refers to the pestle, as the grinding was originally done with that implement
and a mortar.”
Older Ligurian recipes, writes Hazan, call for sheep’s
milk cheese, and many modern cooks add a little butter.
To make the pesto
greener, Genoese cooks sometimes add a little parsley.
Pesto has become
so popular outside of Italy that many cooks have come up with new variations on
the pesto theme. Arugula pesto is a favorite of Fran Gage, author of The New
American Olive Oil. Gage writes, “This isn’t a classic pesto, with garlic,
cheese and nuts – there are only three ingredients: the greens, oil and salt.”
She uses the vibrantly colored arugula pesto to dress pasta or serves it on
toasted slices of baguette as an appetizer. She makes cilantro pesto the same
way, and finishes it with a little limeflavored olive oil.
Chef John Ash,
author of From the Earth to the Table, makes sun-dried tomato pesto with a hint
of wine flavor.
He soaks dry-packed tomatoes in heated fruity red wine
such as Pinot Noir, drains them and purees them with tomato paste, lightly
toasted pistachios, roasted garlic, dryaged goat cheese and fresh basil, and
then gradually blends in olive oil and seasons the pesto with salt and
Ash also makes a fresh mint and parsley pesto with toasted
almonds, lemon zest and garlic for serving with roasted cauliflower and
rigatoni, and a spinacharugula pesto with chopped hazelnuts to accompany ricotta
Naturally, pesto is popular among lovers of raw foods. Dorit,
author of Celebrating our Raw Nature, prepares pesto from garlic, fresh basil,
olive oil and sea salt, and adds optional herbed vegan ricotta cheese, which she
makes from cashews blended with macadamia nuts, pine nuts and flavorings. Her
hemp pesto is made from raw hemp seeds, fresh basil, raw miso, hemp oil, tehina,
sun-dried raw olives and garlic.
She serves it with raw spaghetti, which
is made from zucchini cut into the shape of noodles.
Cooks around Italy
have been preparing different kinds of pesto for a long time. Tuscans, writes
Hazan, make their pesto slightly differently from Ligurians, using a mezzaluna
(a knife with a curved blade) to blend the ingredients instead of a pestle,
flavoring it with Parmesan mixed with aged sheep’s milk cheese and adding a
little cooked spinach to keep the pesto green.
Southern Italian pesto can
be quite different from Genoese basil pesto. In Calabria, cooks make red pesto.
It’s based on sauteed sweet red peppers, olive oil, ricotta, aged sheep’s milk
cheese and Parmesan cheese and is seasoned with hot pepper flakes; Some cooks
include sauteed onions, basil, oregano, fresh tomatoes or sauteed
Sicilian nut pesto, writes Erica De Mane, author of The Flavors
of Southern Italy, is made “with a variety of nuts, some herbs, olive oil and
always a touch of tomato.”
Pistachios, almonds and pine nuts are the
basis of De Mane’s Sicilian pesto. She grinds the nuts with garlic, hot red
pepper, fresh mint, fresh basil, olive oil and salt; as a finishing touch, she
mixes in diced tomato.
“I must have asked a dozen women how they make
pesto,” writes Anna Tasca Lanza in The Flavors of Sicily.
“No two replies
were the same – although each one swore hers was the authentic recipe. The only
ingredients found in every recipe were garlic and olive oil; the only direction,
to let the pesto stand for a day to let the flavors develop. Other than that,
one woman uses tomatoes and basil and another, tomatoes and parsley; a third
uses basil in summer and parsley in winter. One seasons it with dried oregano,
another with ground hot pepper, a third with both.
One has almonds,
another black olives, and so on.”
Lanza makes her Sicilian pesto with
tomatoes, mixed fresh herbs, ground hot pepper and almonds. The recipe is
below.ANNA’S SICILIAN PESTO WITH PASTA
This recipe is from The Flavors of Sicily. Author Anna Tasca Lanza writes
that no two recipes of the famous Pantescan pesto (from the island of
Pantelleria off the coast of Sicily) are alike. She varies the herbs according
to what she has on hand. “I just go out into the garden and pick as many herb
leaves as I think I’ll need and proceed from there. The pesto tastes better if
it sits for a day.
Makes 4 servings
2 cups (120 gr. or 4 ounces) mixed
herbs, such as mint, parsley, basil and sage
2 cloves garlic
4 small ripe
tomatoes (225 gr. or 8 ounces), cut up
1 tsp. sugar
Ground hot pepper
cup olive oil
450 to 500 gr. (1 pound) spaghetti
1⁄4 cup slivered almonds (see
Combine the herbs, garlic and tomatoes in a food processor and
process until roughly chopped. Add the sugar and salt and hot pepper to taste.
With the machine running, pour in 1⁄4 cup of the oil. Process just until
blended. Scrape into a bowl or jar.
Pour the remaining oil on top.
Refrigerate overnight to let the flavors develop.
Just before serving,
cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling salted water until al
Drain. Stir the pesto and toss with the pasta.
almonds on top and serve.
Note: If the almonds are very flavorful, use
them as is; otherwise, toast them lightly to heighten the flavor.CLASSIC
Pesto is easy to make in the food processor.
If you like,
substitute 1⁄2 cup parsley leaves for the basil. To make the pesto parve or
vegan, omit the cheese. You can keep the pesto, covered, for 2 days in the
refrigerator. Bring it to room temperature for serving.
This makes enough
for 450 to 500 gr.
(1 pound) pasta, to serve 4 to 6.
garlic cloves, peeled
1⁄4 cup pine nuts or diced walnuts
2 cups (about 55 gr. or
2 ounces packed basil leaves
1 cup (about 80 gr. or 3 ounces) freshly grated
2⁄3 cup fine quality olive oil, preferably extra-virgin
blade of the food processor turning, drop the garlic cloves, one at a time,
through feed tube and process them until finely chopped. Add the pine nuts,
basil and cheese and process until basil is chopped.
With the blade
turning, gradually add the olive oil. Scrape down sides and process until
mixture is well blended. Transfer to a small bowl.
Refrigerate the pesto
if you are making it ahead.Faye Levy is the author of