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 this pesto recipe so special.
A Special Pesto
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, it was a complete game-changer. If you love pesto, you really have to try this. Her technique results in an incredibly special pesto.
Chop by hand or blender?
Most of the pesto you encounter here in the U.S. is different for a few reasons. First off, most of what you see 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 a 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 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 minuscule 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.
Choosing the right basil
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're serious about making good pesto using the hand-chop technique you'll need a sharp (preferably large, single blade) mezzaluna, or a good knife. The sharpness of your blade absolutely matters - you don't want to bruise or tear your basil. Whatever you use to chop, make sure it has a sharp blade or the basil will turn dark. Chopping the ingredients will take twenty minutes or so. Once you chop your ingredients, you'll form them into a cake, pictured above. You add olive oil to this cake, and it's magic - below.
How to Store Pesto
Store any pesto you might use in the next day or two, refrigerated, under a thin film of olive oil. You can also freeze it in snack-sized baggies. Thaw and toss with whatever gnocchi, ravioli, or other favorite pasta you like - and a good splash of pasta water!
Don't limit yourself to basil pesto. You can absolutely experiment with other herbs as well. You can add anything from parsley to marjoram (a favorite!), mint to fresh oregano to your basil base. Or leave the basil out entirely! I like to add citrus zest on occasion, or switch up the type of nuts I use - toasted almonds and walnuts are favorites.
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. 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 spectrum 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 also 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. Trust your tastebuds.
- 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
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 the pesto "cake" with a bit of olive oil. It doesn't take much, just a few tablespoons. At this point, you can set the pesto 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. Francesca's mom occasionally thins the pesto with a splash of pasta water for more coverage, but for our gnocchi this wasn't necessary.