Pesto (Felicity Cloake)

Prep 20-25 min
Makes 1 small jar

2 tbsp pine nuts
1 pinch salt
250g fresh basil leaves
1 garlic clove (optional)
25g parmesan
25g pecorino
300ml extra-virgin olive oil

1 Toast the nuts

Heat a frying pan on a medium flame, then toast the pine nuts, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant and starting to colour. Pine nuts, especially the fat Italian kind, aren’t cheap, so many commercial pestos use cashews; pistachios or almonds also make decent substitutes. (Always taste pine nuts before use: they go rancid very quickly.) Tip out on to a plate and leave to cool completely.

2 Grate the cheese

Meanwhile, get everything else ready. Finely grate the cheese: parmesan and pecorino (I like a combination of the two: the former for its richness; the latter for its cleaner, saltier flavour) are the traditional choices in pesto’s Ligurian homeland, but many commercial pestos use cheaper grana padano; indeed, pretty much any very hard cheese will work.

3 Prep the basil

Pick the basil leaves until you have 250g: discard the stalks, because they discolour quickly and give an unpleasantly fibrous texture to the pesto. (This may seem extravagant, but pasta and pesto is still a pretty cheap meal, especially if you buy the basil in large bunches at a market or greengrocers, where it tends to be cheaper than the supermarket.)

4 Mortar v food processor

Choose your equipment: purists insist that pesto can be made only with a pestle and mortar, because the action is less violent than a food processor. There’s a surprising logic behind this – experiments show that more coarsely chopped basil retains more flavour – but you can still make great pesto in a machine, so long as you use it with care.

5 Start pounding (garlic optional)

Lightly crush the nuts with a pinch of salt, then gradually add the basil, pounding or pulsing just until you have a thick paste. Work as quickly as possible, so the basil retains its vibrant green colour, but be careful not to overwork it, especially if you’re using a food processor. You can also add a garlic clove, although I don’t.

6 Add the cheese and oil

Stir in the cheese, then gradually beat in the oil, keeping a little back for the top of the jar. Extra-virgin olive oil is the usual choice, but you need to exercise caution: some are so strongly peppery that they will overpower the basil, so taste before use. To keep costs down, mix with a neutral oil, as commercial manufacturers often do.

7 Leftovers

Pesto is best eaten fresh, but if you have any left over, spoon into a sterilised jar, then cover with olive oil to form a seal. It should keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge, though always taste a little before adding it to anything. Alternatively, it freezes surprisingly well: ice-cube trays are a good receptacle for individual portions.

8 Traditional extras

To make classic Genovese pesto pasta, seek out trofie: these little twisted pasta pieces hold the sauce perfectly, but strozzapreti, linguine or any long pasta will also do. Boil in well-salted water and toss with the pesto, a handful of blanched green beans and some boiled, peeled and cubed waxy potatoes – a dash of pasta cooking water helps emulsify the sauce.

9 Variations

The word “pesto” comes from “pestare”, meaning to pound or crush, but what you choose to crush is up to you. Pesto alla Siciliana, or pesto rosso, is made with tomatoes, almonds and occasionally mint instead of basil; pesto alla Calabrese uses tomatoes, roast red peppers and ricotta. I often make a British version with wild garlic or parsley, walnuts and goat’s cheese.

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