Pesto alla Genovese
Fall is approaching, which means I have to harvest the last of my basil and turn it into something that will last the winter. For me, that pretty much always means pesto. Pesto is Italian for “pounded” (think pestle). The idea of pounding basil, garlic, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil into what we call pesto originated in Genoa, Italy—hence, the full name of this vivid, green, flavorful seasoning is pesto alla Genovese. People now make pounded substances with red pepper, anchovies, cilantro, mint, and a variety of other tasty ingredients and call them pestos—but as delicious and worthwhile as they may be, the original, “real” pesto uses basil.
It’s great having fresh basil on hand (not just for pesto, but also for Caprese salad, and I even toss basil leaves, along with mint leaves, into salads for extra flavor), which makes it especially nice that it’s so easy to grow. I just have a pot on my balcony. I buy a couple of little starter plants in late spring, and within a few weeks, I have thriving plants, and I’m supplied with basil through the summer and well into the fall. (I try to make sure it’s all picked before the first frost, however.)
Though most of our culinary herbs originated in the Mediterranean, sweet basil originated in India, where it was considered sacred to Vishnu. The Egyptians, who were trading with India thousands of years BC, mixed basil with myrrh and incense and offered it to their gods. The English name of the herb comes from the Greek basilikón, which means “kingly” or “royal”—so it was considered fit for royalty, as well as for deities.
Thanks to the writing of ancient foodies, we know basil made the leap from sacred to culinary by at least 400 BC, at which time a Greek physician—botanist named Chrysippos wrote of it as a seasoning (his favorite, in fact). Both the Greeks and Romans used basil in their sauces, though it also remained symbolic, associated with both love and death.
During the Middle Ages, the herb made its way northward into France (where, in Provence, pesto became pistou), and then into England by the 1500s. Basil’s popularity has varied dramatically over the years in France and England, primarily because other herbs have gained favor over time, but it has always retained its popularity in Italy and southern France—and in the cooking from these regions, wherever it has been transplanted.
Basil is a member of the mint family, along with rosemary, marjoram, sage, savory, thyme, and, of course, the true mints. As a result, basil goes well with pretty much any of these, and can sometimes even be substituted for one or more of them. (I had a basil ice cream once—at Le Français when Jean Banchet was still there— that was so good I could hardly stand it. It was as refreshing as mint, but wonderfully different.)
Traditionally, pesto would be made in a mortar and pestle (did you think I was kidding about the pesto/pestle connection?). There are those who still prefer this method, but life is short and I’m usually busy, so I use my food processor. Pesto is most traditionally tossed with hot pasta, but it can also be a delicious way to season hot vegetable soup. Pesto freezes well, so it’s the ideal way of storing your fall harvest. Enjoy.
Pesto alla Genovese
1 good-size bunch of basil (about 1½ cups)
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup pine nuts (see Notes)
¾ cup grated cheese (see Notes)
about ¾ cup olive oil
If basil leaves are on branches, remove from branches. Tear the basil leaves and split the garlic. Put basil, garlic, pine nuts, and cheese into a food processor and pulse until well combined and beginning to look somewhat paste—like. Then, with the food processor running, slowly add the olive oil until the mixture is a fairly thick paste—a bit thicker than mayonnaise but not as thick as library paste.
Put a light film of olive oil over the top of the pesto. You can use it immediately, refrigerate it (covered) for a week or so, or freeze it. When it’s time to use the pesto, add about 2 tablespoons pesto per serving of buttered pasta, or add 1 tablespoon per serving to soup.
Classically, one would use half parmesan and half pecorino cheeses, and this does render the most flavorful pesto. However, one can use all parmesan and still get a good result. The better the cheese, the better the pesto, but all the basil and garlic will cover up some shortcomings in the cheese, so you don’t have to spend a fortune.
If you toast the pine nuts, it intensifies their flavor. Just add a bit of oil to a hot pan, add the pine nuts, and toss them a bit over the flame until they are golden brown. Careful. Once they begin to change color it doesn’t take long before they get too dark. Then throw them into the food processor as described above.