How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother Recipe


If you've ever tasted pesto in Italy you know that the pesto here in the United States just isn't the same. I received a lesson in how to make pesto from a real Italian grandmother last week and now I understand the difference and what makes it so.

My friend Francesca makes the trip from her small town near the pesto-epicenter of Genoa, Italy to San Francisco once or twice a year - this time (lucky for us) she brought her mom and two-year old son Mattia. Her mom makes a beautiful pesto (and perfectly light, potato gnocchi to go along with it) and offered to show me and my friend Jen how it is done. I have to say, I'll never look back, and will never make pesto any other way. If you love pesto, you really have to try this.

Most of the pesto you encounter here in the U.S. is different for a few reasons. First off, most of what you see here is made by machine, usually a food processor or hand blender. This holds true even if it is homemade. Don't get me wrong, it usually tastes good, but because the ingredients aren't hand chopped you end up with an texture that is more like like a moist paste and there little to no definition between ingredients.

During my lesson I quickly began to realize chopping all the ingredients by hand and not blending them is key because this prevents the ingredients from becoming a completely homogenized emulsion or paste. When you dress a pasta with a pesto that has been hand chopped the miniscule flecks of basil will separate from the olive oil in places, you get definition between ingredients, and bright flavors pop in a way they don't when they've been blended into one .

Another thing, Genovese pesto is famous in part because it is often made with young, small basil leaves. For us non-Italians it is easy to find Genovese basil in stores and at farmer's markets particularly in the summer, but chances are it wasn't picked young. I wouldn't worry about it too much, simply by hand chopping all your ingredients, you will see a major shift in personality of your pesto. If you grow your own basil, I'm envious.

Best Pesto Recipe

So, if you are serious about making good pesto, get a good, sharp (preferably large, single blade) mezzaluna, you'll need it. Chopping the ingredients will take twenty or thirty minutes. Whatever you use to chop, make sure it has a sharp blade or the basil will turn dark. Let me know if you try this and what you think, I promise to share her potato gnocchi technique in a future post, they were unbelievable. Also, note to self: do a remix of the thousand-layer lasagne with this.

Book signings & sightings!
Huge thanks to all of you who turned out for my book signing on Saturday, I really enjoyed meeting each of you in person! Also, thanks to all of you who have been sending in the names of stores where you've seen my book. Here's a list of places where my book has been sighted, new additions to the list include Books a Million in Oxford Alabama, Pages for All Ages in Champaign Illinois, Moe's Books on Telegraph in Berkeley, and Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri. Please let me know if you see it elsewhere so I can add to the list!

 
 
 
 

How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

One key to perfect pesto is chopping all the ingredients by hand, preferably with a sharp mezzaluna or knife. I gave my double-bladed mezzaluna to a friend last year because it was collecting dust (I also didn't like how ingredients would get stuck between the blades), but have a large half-moon shaped pizza cutter that works like a dream. Francesca's mom even approved and said it cut her chopping time in half. This pesto will keep a bit in the refrigerator, but it really hits its peak when served soon after it is made.

The technique here is: chop a bit, add some ingredients, chop some more. I think part of the reason she does it this way (instead of chopping everything all at once) is because some things get chopped into oblivion, while some not as much - it encourages specturm of cut sizes throughout the pesto contributing to the overall texture. All told, the chopping took me a leisurely twenty to thirty minutes, I wasn't in any particular rush.

You'll notice this recipe doesn't have any added salt (just the saltiness from the cheese), make sure your pasta water is well salted if you are going to use this pesto on pasta or the overall flavor profile will fall flat. Also, be sure to adjust for seasoning before serving. With food this simple, you need to get the seasoning right.

1 large bunch of basil, leaves only, washed and dried
3 medium cloves of garlic
one small handful of raw pine nuts
roughly 3/4 cup Parmesan, loosely packed and FRESHLY GRATED
A few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

Special equipment: large mezzaluna for chopping

Start chopping the garlic along with about 1/3 of the basil leaves. Once this is loosely chopped add more basil, chop some more, add the rest of the basil, chop some more. I scrape and chop, gather and chop. At this point the basil and garlic should be a very fine mince. Add about half the pine nuts, chop. Add the rest of the pine nuts, chop. Add half of the Parmesan, chop. Add the rest of the Parmesan, and chop. In the end you want a chop so fine that you can press all the ingredients into a basil "cake" - see the photo up above. Transfer the pesto "cake" to a small bowl (not much bigger than the cake). Cover with a bit of olive oil, it doesn't take much, just a few tablespoons.

You can set this aside or place it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. Just before serving give the pesto a quick stir to incorporate some of the oil into the basil. She occasionally thins the pesto with a splash of pasta water for more coverage, but for our gnocchi this wasn't necessary.

Makes about 1 cup.

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Your Comments


est
March 25, 2007

wow! thanks for sharing that technique, it does not seem extremely complicated but pesto this way will definitely taste better!

 

Trinity
March 25, 2007

Delightful! My mother makes a good pesto but she's always looking for more "oomph"; I'll have to pass this on to her.

 

Rachelle
March 25, 2007

Awesome! Thanks for this recipe. I've been looking forward to it ever since you mentioned it yesterday at the book signing. I can't wait for the gnocchi recipe to use it with!

 

Deborah Dowd
March 25, 2007

Some things are just worth the time and effort. It is time to put my basil plants in the ground so that I too can make pesto like an Italian grandmother!

 

dinnerware
March 25, 2007

I enjoy your blog and I also love the way you take pictures. Thank you for sharing this recipe, will try it when sommer comes.

 

Diane
March 25, 2007

I make my pesto in my big old granite mortar and pestle (used also for making Thai curries). I think it turns out much better than a food processor, but my theory is that bruising all the ingredients together brings out more flavor. It takes me about 15 - 20 minutes total. I start with nuts, then garlic, then leaves, lastly olive oil and cheese (and add oil also as I go).

 

VL
March 25, 2007

Any ideas on a substitution for the pine nuts my husband is deathly allergic to?

 

pritya
March 25, 2007

Dear Heidi, Thank you for sharing this recipe. The input that one should chop and mix alternately seems invaluable. The pics are inviting - as always. I really like your title - how to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother - cant say it any better. Will try this for sure.

 

laya
March 25, 2007

You can substitute nuts like pecans or almonds, they must be toasted, it wil taste different but good. You can substitute cilantro for basil as well - great on burritos!

 

gangadhara
March 26, 2007

Ah! Pesto. Long ago one of Sydney's top chefs taught me how to make pesto by hand and it revolutionalised my life. I make it in the mortar and pestle. First, add the basil leaves and bruise them with the pestle. Add a little salt to assist grinding. As they begin to break down, add chopped garlic and then the pine nuts. Lastly add the cheese and then olive oil. The texture is much as you have described - perhaps a little more rustic - and the taste is amazing.

For endless variations, use nuts instead of pinenuts - cashews and macademias work well. Use coriander rather than basil. Add some young spinach to the basil. Stir finely chopped tomatoes through the final product. Oh endless imagination....... Scuse me I am off to make some pesto.

 

Andrea Ferri
March 26, 2007

May I contribute to the definition of a "perfect pesto"? To release the higher possible quantity of the essential oils contained within the basil leaves, pesto should be made with mortar and pestle (pesto comes from "pestare" which is the word definig the action). Using the mezzaluna or any sharp implement will lessen the taste. The cheese should be a 50/50 blend of (real) parmigiano and (real) pecorino (romano or from Sardinia). The olive oil should be "extra virgin" (expression which only makes sense when talking of olive oil...).
Once ready the pesto can be used to season several types of pasta and even to correct a minestrone.
However the "pasta al pesto" typically served in Ligurian homes uses "TROFIE" (a sort of hand made, short type of pasta) boiled together with potatoes and string beans.
In my opinion it is possible to prepare excellent pasta dishes using all above suggestions, however to get the real thing I am afraid people should fly there.
Ciao!

 

theCook
March 26, 2007

Thanks for sharing this recipe. I look forward to trying it!

 

Mary
March 26, 2007

It would be really great to fly to Italy as suggested in a previous comment. For now, I'm going to dream pesto dreams and make plans to grow basil this summer. The recipe here looks divine. I absolutely can't wait for the gnocchi; my husband and I gave up making it after several disasters, but we've been thinking of revisiting it. Thanks for the pesto recipe.

 

emily
March 26, 2007

Oh I'm thrilled you posted this! I have an excellent recipe for a pomodoro sauce with basil pesto, but all the sauces I found at the grocers looked so pastey and not-so fresh. I can't wait to try it!

 

Monika Korngut
March 26, 2007

Great post and very insightful. I'm going to try your technique, I like the idea of seeing beautiful specs of basil on my pasta.

 

robinbaur
March 26, 2007

Heidi - I'm curious . . . what is the origin of "Mattia"? Our son is Matteo. I had never heard the previous version. Thanks for a continually inspirational blog!

 

Joyce
March 26, 2007

Wow, imagine such a little thing like hand chopping instead of machine chopping! I can see the difference and can't wait to give it a try. I've lovely pots of basil plants growing on the patio!

 

Fabien
March 26, 2007

Just to be more precise "1 large bunch of basil" means at least 40 leaves... and consider that the original basil from Genova has large leaves... :))
This said, your recipe is very good and tasty :)

 

Rebecca
March 26, 2007

Heidi,
Regarding your plans to make a variation on the lasagne with pesto, my father-in-law (who lives near Florence) makes my favorite dish in the world which is simply alternating layers of bechamel sauce and pesto with lasagne. Put a generous dusting of parmesan/romano on each layer. Make sure you use a lot of the bechamel as it can turn out dry if you don't.
When I was in Genova, as the commenter Andrea said, the pasta al pesto was prepared with boiled potatoes, which added an interesting texture and buttery flavor to the mix.

 

Anonymous
March 26, 2007

Thanks for sharing! I've never made pesto (I buy it from the supermarket) - but after reading this, I'm definitely going to give it a try.

 

janelle
March 26, 2007

Beautiful! Yum!

 

Sean
March 26, 2007

Guilty as charged -- I rely on my Cuisinart to make pesto, but after this post I will reconsider next time. Last year I did grow my own basil in window boxes off my railing, and while they did have a superior flavor to the bland store-bought creatures, they still didn't compare to basil in Italy proper. I don't know if it's the soil, the sun, the water, or just being in Italy that makes the difference.

I love, though, that in Italy you buy basil as a living plant in the produce section. The flavor begins draining from the leaves the second the plant is cut. I wish we had that in our grocery stores.

 

LorriM
March 26, 2007

I can't wait to try making pesto this way. It doesn't sound overly difficult, and I can tell from the recipe that my dear Italian grandmother, would have used a recipe like this, in her life time.

Thank you.

 

Book Diva
March 26, 2007

This recipe sounds fantastic, and being Italian, myself, I can tell it is made the old-fashioned way.

 

Daniela
March 26, 2007

Hi Heidi, I think that one of the most important secrets for a pesto that tastes and smells like the original one is the use of a pestle, instead of a knife, to grind basil, garlic and pine nuts.
Pestling ingredients intead of cutting them makes pesto much more smoother ;)

 

Sarah
March 26, 2007

I like to substitute walnuts sometimes... and sometimes, I like to add finely diced sun-dried tomato slices. YUM. Thanks for the new technique.

 

Sebastian
March 26, 2007

In Frankfurt we have a herb based sauce called „Grie Soß” (green sauce) which is very different to pesto, but its secret is the same: chopping it instead of blending because otherwise the sauce turns bitter and the very different tastes of the (seven) herbs mix too much.

Although I have always made pesto in the mortar I’ll try this, hoping for a more rough but singular taste of every ingredient. And to add one ingredient after the other just makes it easier to chop, I suppose. Thank you very much. (But: I wouldn’t wash the basil. And I’d add some salt and more oil, if you want the pesto last. Sorry for Denglish)

 

Sophie
March 26, 2007

Thanks for these ideas Heidi. I've been making a lot of asian pesto recently (with coriander and cashew nuts instead) and the texture was a bit smoother than I wanted it so I'll definitely try this way out next time (I've got one of those mezzaluna gathering dust in the cupboard too!)

 

Aprille Clarke
March 26, 2007

My husband bought your beautiful cookbook for me at Prairie Lights bookstore, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City, IA 52240.

I love it. Thanks for writing/photographing it.

 

Katrineholm Review
March 26, 2007

Thanks for that. In Katrineholm, Sweden we have pretty good pesto.

 

David
March 26, 2007

I'm pretty attached to my (American I guess!) pesto recipe but some time will have to try this traditional way, I do love pesto!

 

Chris
March 26, 2007

Oh my! I just "food processed" my way to sun dried tomato pesto last night. When I told my mom about your post, her reply (since 1/2 my family is from Genoa) was - "Yes, how else should it be made?" Thanks mom....Missed that in my home-culinary lessons...ha! ha! ha! Thanks for this. I can't wait to try it.

 

alonso
March 26, 2007

how did you know I cook, thank you for the recipe

 

Alex
March 26, 2007

My friend,
this grandmother and you are wrong !
"Il pesto" (the "pesto") is made "pounding", not chopping, the ingredients in a mortar of marble with a pestle of marble. The same name "pesto" in italian means "pounded" and not chopped. Chopping basil for "pesto" is an heresy, sorry.

 

Jonathan
March 27, 2007

Ms. Swanson,

I've used sharp kitchen scissors to good effect on herbs to avoid the darkening / brusing. If one is lacking a mezzaluna or half-moon pizza cutter, they might serve as well.

Just a thought...

-Jonathan

 

Derek
March 27, 2007

My suggestion would be to substitute the pine nuts for pistachios. You'll be surprised how much you won't miss the pine nuts. Of course, taste is a personal thing, but at least give it a try.

 

Amber
March 27, 2007

I've always toasted the pine nuts before chopping, to bring out more flavor. Is that not the case here?

 

Steve Dunham
March 27, 2007

I've also heard that pumpkin seeds can be substituted for pine nuts, but I haven't tried this yet myself. I have successfully used pumpkin seeds in place of almonds in a red mole sauce. (My fiancée is allergic to tree nuts, peanuts, some forms of soy, and, sadly, mushrooms.)

 

HornCologne
March 27, 2007

@Heidi and especially @Fabien - a VERY IMPORTANT POINT from my Italian wife: Genovese basil (Ocimum Basilicum 'Genovese' I believe, aka 'Lemon Basil'), like the basil grown throughout Provence, just down the coast in France, does *not* have very large leaves! The fully mature leaves are small and flat compared to the curled variety commonly found in the US and elsewhere. They are also a lighter shade of green and have a delicate flavor all their own. There are 150 types of basil (!) growing around the world (try making pesto with Thai basil for a wild variation), but for the true Genovese experience, making your pesto with this variety will take it to the next level.

Sorry to be fussy about this, but the Italians are very, very difficult about their food!

photo here:

@robinbaur - Mattia and Matteo are both variants on Matthew, from the Hebrew Matithyah "Gift of God"

 

HornCologne
March 27, 2007

The tag stripper killed my link, I guess ... let's see if I can sneak it in ... you guys paste this together to see the photo I mentioned.

www [dot] uni-graz.at [slash] ~katzer [slash] engl [slash] Ocim_bas [dot] html

 

Maria
March 27, 2007

One of the best pesto recipes. BTW i found great kitchenware at OnlyHouseware

 

flo
March 27, 2007

Heidi, I knew that you should chop by hand for better results, but I never heard that you should chop, add, chop, add and so on... I will definitly try this next time I make pesto! Thanks for all those details!
Ps: The more I hear about your book, the more I itch to order it. Lucky amazon 's here!

 

Oscar From CIA
March 27, 2007

Heidi, as always another fabulous entry. I can't wait for you to share the potato gnocchi recipe. I am a sucker for gnocchi; I see it on a menu I order it!

 

chris
March 27, 2007

i would venture to say that the difference between home-grown and store-bought basil is more telling than technical differences in how you process it into pesto sauce. herbs are so easy to grow, and the quality difference is just too great to even remember it properly when you have accustomed yourself to grocery store substitutes.

 

Cigarlady
March 28, 2007

This technique is a lot like making pico de gallo salsa where you chop each ingredient and slowly add them and keep chopping. The flavor and more importantly the texture are so much better than if it got pulsed in a Cuisinart

 

Brandon
March 28, 2007

Any excuse to buy a mezzaluna, I always say . . .

 

Freya
March 28, 2007

Great article! Now I know what to do with the basil plant on the window sill!

 

Heidi
March 28, 2007

Sorry for the delay in responding (this week has been unusually busy!) - regardless, it looks like you all came up with plenty of great suggestions on your own. I love reading them.

Robin, I'm not exactly sure what the inspiration was behind the naming of Mattia, but HC's insight is interesting. I will ask her, I suspect there is a story there, but it might be a personal one.

As far as the chop vs. smash debate goes: I've done pesto with the mortar and pestle before as well (also wonderful), but really love everything about this particular method and the flavor and texture it yields...

 

Raffaella
March 28, 2007

You can substitute nuts like pecans or almonds, they must be toasted, it wil taste different but good. You can substitute cilantro for basil as well - great on burritos!

No way! Stick to the real ingredients folks ;-)

 

Jamie S
March 28, 2007

Great (and useful) post! One question I have is about storing pesto. Do you leave it in a bowl with plastic wrap? A jar? Sometimes it goes from bright green to brown (eww). What about lemon juice like gaucamole? I guess that ruins the flavor? Thanks!

 

sciencegeek
March 28, 2007

I grew up without a food processor or blender and so made pesto as kid by chopping the basil with a knife. We'd stop by a farmstand on the way home and buy enormous bundles of basil and a few tomatoes. Then we'd go home and make pesto to put on some pasta and a plate of tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, strips of more basil and a slosh of olive oil.

I think I had a good childhood.

More recently, I've purchased a blender and make pesto mechanically. Perhaps I'll get a good mortar and pestle in the next few months.

I like pesto as made by chopping as well as by food processor. They're different but both good. Heresy, my foot.

 

joao
March 28, 2007

One more tip.
Try to use mediterranean pinenuts. They're completely different from the asian ones. The flavour is so much more complex. I also find that using a pestel and mortar makes a fantastic pesto. Just add the pinenuts more at the end so they don't disapear completely.

 

joao
March 28, 2007

To Jamie S:
The best way to store pesto is to pack it in a jar and flatten the surface making sure there are no air bubbles. Then just cover the top with a thin layer of olive oil.
This will keep for a week in the fridge.

 

francis
March 29, 2007

i learned pesto making using a mortar and pestle; but, a food processor is much easier. i never heard of making it with a knive. that sound like a lot of work. what i do is i grind the ingredients separately to control the texture. first i do the cheese. then i chop the nuts. i do coarse chopped load of basil. and another load of finely chopped basil with the garlic. i mix them together in a bowl and adjust the olive oil and seasoning. note: i place oil and salt with the basil to assist in the chopping. i freeze these for uptill two months in small containers topped up with oil.

 

threelayercake
March 29, 2007

I've done quite a bit of 'apprenticing' in friends' mothers' kitchens all over Italy and have found that most of them either use the mortar and pestle or the food processor. BY hadn cutting, I fear you wouldn't release the flavor in the basil that a more 'violent' technique serves to enhance... Might the salt help keep the leaves from darkening?

Anyway-- for the person with pinoli (pine nut) allergy issues, try a search for Sicilian pesto and try that out! Nice.

tlc

p.s. also, try the Saveur magazine archive for another good pesto recipe

 

Renato P
March 29, 2007

Scusa Heidy, ma il vero e tradizionale Pesto è fatto in mortaio di marmo ! e si usano assieme Grana Padano e Pecorino. (per un piu forte e marcante sappore)

 

tyronebcookin
March 29, 2007

Yes, this is completely true...I was so dissappointed with pesto's across the board (grocery stores, specialty, gourmet) that I also started chopping/mixing all my ingredients (when making pesto) by hand or by mortar and pestle.

It makes such a difference for folding/tossing with pasta's but also for light pizza's (made without marinara).

Luckily for me my local grocery store has started carrying basil micro-greens...the classic Genovese flavor is even more intense at the seedling stage.

Or instead of the balsamic/extra virgin olive oil on top of the fresh mozzarella, tomato salads (I like a little thin sliced red onion rings too) top it with this pesto instead!

 

Ales
March 29, 2007

Hi,
I live in Liguria (near Cinque Terre) and I can say that in nearly every household in Liguria pesto is made, nowdays!, with an electric blender and it tastes very good. I guess what really makes a difference is the basil (young leaves as you said), especially if grown in the area of Genova Pra (for the composition of soil), but also the quality of parmesan (or pecorino) cheese and the pinenuts used. Handchopped? Pesto is traditionally made with mortar and pestel, but I guess every ligurian has few tricks up his or her sleeves to make pesto as wonderful as only it can be. Your version looks pretty inviting and authentic, though : )

 

Renae
March 29, 2007

The pesto sounds fabulous.

I just picked up your cookbook at Books Inc in Palo Alto (the Stanford Mall store). I can't wait to try it out!

 

the veggie paparazzo
March 29, 2007

I was very excited to see your cookbook in the health/diet foods section of the Cumberland B&N in Atlanta. It's a gorgeous cookbook. I only talked myself out of buying it because I wasn't there to buy a book at all, but I do intend to pick it up when the month has flipped!

 

Ken
March 29, 2007

ubercool!!! I'll try this tonight! (I do cultivate my own basil :-) )

 

asif zia
March 30, 2007

Delightful! My mother makes a good pesto but she's pass away ??????????????

 

SxyPaula
March 30, 2007

Thanks for the tip, it's fabulous! I have always love italian food

 

Dusty
March 30, 2007

Terrific! There's nothing like a good, fresh pesto. You can also experiment with other ingredients: replace the basil with a couple of roasted red peppers to get a roasted red pepper pesto. You will need a blender in this case, and some seasoning, but it makes an unbelievable pesto, which can also be used as a dip for fresh vegetables.
Bon appetito!

 

LeeAnn
March 30, 2007

I found your site through Design*Sponge and have to say I love your site. I bookmarked you and plan on returning later to read your archives!

 

Tea
March 31, 2007

That top photo is stunning, Heidi.

I've always used a food processor for pesto because I make batches and batches each summer for freezing and for friends (we call it Pesto-fest). Takes a day or two--would probably take a week if I chopped it all. But I'll try a small batch of chopped this summer, as it does sound wonderful.

You realize that posting this in March is just mean:-)

 

Silvana
March 31, 2007

Hello from Argentina!! I am the granddaughter of a wonderful couple of Italians born in Genova (Giovani Battista and Terzilla Olivieri). For me, pesto is a childhood flavour. Wonderful taste, great texture. Just one thing, from my early memories of sunday mornigs, when home made pasta was a must: I understand from your recipe that you chop with a blade; I saw my grandparents use a wooden mortar and pestle. Also, to prevent oxidation of basil (turning black), you can cover the pesto with olive oil, to prevent oxigen from reaching the ingredients.

Thanks!!!