Pesto is a great go to staple, perfect for stirring through pasta, boiled potatoes, potato salad with chicken, lamb or fish. There are a number of good quality products you can purchase, it’s always handy to have a jar in the pantry, or keep some in the freezer. Nothing really compares with freshly made pesto, now is basil season for Melbourne a perfect time me to create ‘Pesto alla Genovese’.
I make a large batch and freeze in ice cube trays ( once frozen I take them out and place in a ziplock bag these cubes give me the perfect serving size to add to vegetable soup) and larger amounts I freeze directly in ziplock bags. It freezes really well, for about 4-5 months, you may just need to add a little additional oil when using it as the freezer tends to dry it out slightly.
La Cuciniera Genovese a recipe book published in 1863 authored by Giovanni Battista is the first recorded cook book mentioning pesto but it is thought to go back to the Roman age. Battista actually mentioned using other herbs such as parsley and marjoram due to basil being seasonal. Don’t be fooled you may be able to buy fresh basil out of season but it definitely will not have that gorgeous aroma that only comes from growing in the sunshine. Pesto alla Genovese originates from the Italian city of Genoa, but you will find Calabrian and Sicilian pesto plus many other regions of Italy. Recently a friend served a pistachio pesto from Sicily – amazing. I haven’t yet worked out the recipe, it was very special, I will keep you posted.
The French also have a version from Provence named pistou- which really is basil and oil and used similarly in dishes.
Traditionally pesto is made in a mortar and pestle and purist will always use these tools, there are competitions for the best pesto held in Genoa every year. It is suggested a food processor is too strong and can bruise the basil leaves. Personally I throw everything into a blender without any noticeable loss of flavour.
Recently I made my pesto with French Sorrel in place of basil, it was truly delicious, French Sorrel grows prolifically year round on my balcony, so I can whip up a batch when basil is out of season. I decided to grow it myself as it isn’t readily available at produce stores, at times I do find it at my local farmers market. Sorrel is a lemony taste, it compliments roast chicken beautifully (chopped finely added to butter and pushed under the skin prior to roasting). If you come across it give it a try.
There are so many variations you can make to pesto, using walnuts or almonds in place of pine nuts, use pecorino instead of parmesan cheese, or mix up the herbs to add mint, parsley, marjoram and of course sorrel and basil.
Here is my basic recipe, please jazz it up as you please and let me know your favourites.
This takes 5 minutes or less to make and can be made in advance, just ensure you have a thin layer of olive oil covering the pesto when storing.
- Bunch of basil or sorrel (around 1 1/2 cups) you can use some of the smaller stems
- 1/4 cup pine nuts*
- 1 large clove of garlic
- 3/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese (or pecorino)
- Olive oil about a 1/4 cup variable
Gently heat the pine nuts in a pan, lightly toast. This brings out the natural oils adding a lovely flavour.
In a blender place all of the ingredients, holding back a small amount of olive oil until you have the consistency your looking for.
Keep in an airtight container either in the fridge or freezer, just covered with additional oil.
When using the pesto with pasta, boil the pasta as per the instructions reserving about half a cup of pasta water.
Whilst the pasta is draining add the pesto to the hot pasta pot, if you are using freshly made (as against jar) pesto you may want to heat the pesto through for a couple of minutes to take away the raw garlic taste, bought pesto want have the same raw taste so you an just spoon it through the pasta. I always add a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water and finish off with a splash of olive oil.
*If you can find Spanish pine nuts, generally you will need a specialty store or deli. Most supermarkets stock pine nuts from China, Spanish pine nuts are larger and with more natural oil, making them more flavoursome. Personally I think the result is better. Great quality ingredients especially in something so simple really can make a difference.
My pesto pictured is French Sorrel, hence the colour is slightly less luscious the basil.