Pesto is one of the easiest of Italian recipes now that the food processor has been invented. Of course, it’s a different story if you have to stand for hours smashing the ingredients into a paste (pesto in Italian) with a mortar and pestle like in days of yore–or in the kitchens of contemporary Ligurian/Italian chefs who are purists. There are, however, a few tips here that can make your pesto so much better.
If the weather in your area is still warmish and your pesto is still going, now is the time to freeze a few portions of pesto to warm your soul during the winter months.
First, let me address anyone who lives on the eastern seaboard. I had a hard time growing basil this past summer. I only got a few batches of pesto out of my crop because my crop kept dying on me and I couldn’t figure out why. After reading this recent article in the Washington Post (The Race To Save Sweet Basil), I now know there’s a blight that since 2007 has been making its way up the eastern seaboard and killing specifically the sweet basil. So don’t blame yourself, blame the vermin. Supposedly Rutgers University is working on breeding a sweet basil hybrid that will resist the fungus and may be available in about two years. I know, I know…we can’t wait that long!
How to Make the Best Pesto Ever
1. Start with good seeds if you grow your own. Your basil seeds or small plants should say Italian or Sweet or Classic or Genovese Basil. You can order basil seeds from Grow Italian on the Internet. When picking leaves for pesto, choose the smaller, brighter leaves.
2. Soaking the leaves for ten minutes in ice water helps keep the bright green color during the preparation process and soaks out some of the leaves’ bitterness. If you have the time, blanch the leaves for just 30 seconds in boiling water, then plunge them in cold water. You don’t have to dry them completely before you start the pesto process.
3. Use fresh, good cheese in your pesto such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or an aged pecorino (but not Romano as it’s too salty) or a combination of the two.
4. To help make your pesto velvety, grate the cheese on a microplane so the fluffy cheese will melt right into the sauce.
5. Refrigerate your blender or food processor blade before making the pesto as this tempers the oxidation of the leaf and lowers the bitterness factor.
6. Never expose your pesto to heat on the stove top or in the microwave. Either serve it just after you make it–or if refrigerated or frozen, thaw and let it come to room temperature before serving. The heat will be there when you mix it with the just-cooked pasta.
7. Toss a few tablespoons of starchy pasta cooking water into your pesto to loosen it up before mixing it with pasta.
8. If refrigerating or freezing your pesto, pour a thin layer of olive on top to seal it. Also, many people keep the cheese out of any pesto headed for the freezer and wait until just before serving to add the cheese. Your call.
As you can see below in a pesto I made before I started researching best practices, my pesto is the color of an old army blanket we have downstairs. But now I know…and you know. I guess I should add a basic basil pesto recipe to this post in case you don’t have one. So…see below. And enjoy.
Sweet Basil Pesto
Yield: one and one half cup
Total Time: 30 minutes
- 3 cups loosely packed fresh, sweet basil
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 2 garlic cloves, center green stem removed
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (or substitute)
- Wash the basil in cold water and pat mostly dry
- Put basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt and olive oil in a food processor or blender, with a chilled blade
- Process blend until smooth. Stop once or twice to scrape down the bowl
- Add the cheese and gently stir
- Toss with hot, drained pasta
- If not using immediately, omit the cheese and put a layer of olive oil over the pesto and refrigerate for a week or freeze for 3-4 months
- Variation: to make a creamier pesto, mix 1 tablespoon of soft unsalted butter into the pesto just before serving