Basil is not the easiest herb to grow, finicky about its water intake, demanding of sunlight, and prone to various rots.
People persist, though, because there are few finer herbal sensations currently legal in New York State than a lungful of sunlit basil perfume.
And especially, people persist for pesto. The genius Italian mash-up of basil, garlic, cheese, and oil strikes a soaring chord of summer with each bite. Growing basil without making pesto is like flying over the Grand Canyon with your eyes closed.
Not all pesto is created equal, though. In Liguria, its birthplace, it’s traditionally made with a mortar and pestle. The herb-based elixir drew its name from “pestare,” the Genoese word for crushing with a pestle.
These days, most people use a blender or a food processor. There’s no shame in that, certainly. Pesto made from garden-fresh greenery with mechanical intervention is always preferable to the faded disappointment of jarred product, and hugely better than no pesto at all.
But make no mistake: It takes a mortar and pestle to produce the most pristine pesto. The blunt force bursts the basil and garlic cells, while the grinding and pounding emulsifies the oil with the extracted flavor compounds.
It took trying it out, but I’m convinced. The work is worth the reward. Just don’t kid yourself that it won’t be work.
Testing out recipes gave me a healthy respect for centuries of Italian nonnas, and a reason to skip arm day at the gym. Given a busload of Italians, I bet I could pick out the Ligurians by their Popeye forearms.
If you care considering buying a mortar and pestle, you can go the high road, and opt for the handsome $100 olivewood and Italian marble number. Then every year when you get it out, you can congratulate yourself on what a fine investment you made. It holds about four cups, enough room to make about two cups of pesto without worrying about splattering. That’s enough for a cozy dinner party.
Or you can cheap out with a $30 granite number that holds about two cups, and will get the job done on a cup of pesto. That’s about enough to make to think hard about who your real friends are. As I ground it out, I promised myself the next pestle I purchased would at least have the wider, flatter head of the Italian model.
The classic use of finished pesto is pasta, especially pasta with blanched green beans and potatoes. Loosen up the finished pesto with a splash of hot pasta water before you apply it to the noodles.
Or, slather it onto toasted crusty bread and dot it with crumbled goat’s milk feta and the freshest tomatoes.
For short-term storage, cover it with a layer of olive oil, or it will probably turn greenish-black in an hour. Extending the season is difficult, but some cooks make pesto, leaving out the cheese. Then freeze it in ice cube trays, adding cheese when it’s pulled out to add flavor to sauces or soups.
Food processor pesto is watery and less pungent by comparison. If you have the time and the energy to make mortar and pestle pesto, it’s worth it. At least once a year, you deserve peak pesto.
Peak pesto recipe
(All measurements approximate)
- 4 cups basil leaves, washed and separated from any thick stems
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup pine nuts, preferably Italian
- 2 medium garlic cloves
- 3 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- 3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
Crush the garlic cloves with salt, and grind them into a fine paste.
Add the pine nuts, and grind again until smooth.
Add basil, a handful at a time, and bash and grind until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl from time to time.
Add another handful, and repeat process until all the basil is incorporated and the kitchen smells like an emerald-shaded dream.
Stir in the cheeses, and mix to incorporate. Drizzle in the olive oil gradually, mixing after each addition until it’s blended smoothly.
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