Popular sauce

Pesto can be used on pasta, sandwiches with goat cheese and roasted vegetables or on broiled or baked fish.

Pesto 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Pesto 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
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.”
In traditional 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 pepper.
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 gnocchi.
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 eggplant.
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 PASTAThis 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
1⁄3 cup olive oil
450 to 500 gr. (1 pound) spaghetti
1⁄4 cup slivered almonds (see Note below)
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 dente.
Drain. Stir the pesto and toss with the pasta.
Sprinkle the almonds on top and serve.
Note: If the almonds are very flavorful, use them as is; otherwise, toast them lightly to heighten the flavor.
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.
6 medium 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 Parmesan cheese
2⁄3 cup fine quality olive oil, preferably extra-virgin
With the 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 Sensational Pasta.