Pesto is an Italian classic, originating in the Genoa region of Italy, tracing its roots back to Roman times (although the basil plant itself is likely an Indian import during the spice trade). Many variations exist (such as pistou in Provence which omits the nuts) and there isn’t one real unique recipe; competitions exist in Italy for the best pesto and they are closely guarded family secrets with marked difference.
That, like I’ve always said for things like Kofte, is code for it being somewhat subjective and a function of taste; there are 5 main ingredients; basil, olive oil, parmesan cheese, garlic and pine nuts. I am going to give the broad ratios for starting off making it, but it’s very much open to being manipulated as you see fit.
Provides enough to make a pesto pasta for 4
• 3 good handfuls of fresh (it has to be fresh) basil, picked just before use, leaves removed and stalks discarded.
• 1 good handful pine nuts
• 1 good handful parmesan cheese, finely grated
• ¾ clove of garlic, roughly chopped
• Olive oil (and ground nut oil if you find too much olive oil overpowering) to taste
• Lemon juice and salt to taste (I actually sometimes use lime juice, but lemon would be more traditional).
There are two ways of making it; one with a pestle and mortar (good for taking out the frustrations of a hard day in the office) or a good processor (makes it quick, but texture isn’t quite so good). It’s up to you, there’s no real right way or wrong way.
1. Pop the basil leaves and garlic into the food processor and whizz up into a rough paste (or pound with the pestle and mortar to the same) with a splash of olive oil and a pinch of salt (good sea salt is recommended here). If the garlic is quite old, you might want to soften it in olive oil over a low heat first to remove some of the bitter/woody flavour that will have developed.
2. In a dry frying pan, over a low to medium heat, toast the pine nuts until they just start giving off an aroma. You don’t really want to colour them unless you want a punchy nutty flavour (which some people prefer, to be honest), just lightly toast them. Pop them into the food processor or pestle and mortar and pound them into small chunks.
3. Turn the mix out into a bowl and throw in half to three quarters of the cheese, combine it with the mix and then drizzle in the olive oil (switching to ground nut if needs be to avoid the excesses of olive flavour) until you get to the required consistency (or just over it), then add and stir through the rest of the cheese to taste!. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime to taste and adjust the salt accordingly.
And you’re done, you have a fresh pesto mix that will need using within a day or two (it’ll separate and need stirring again). Goes brilliantly with pasta, but also as a filling for an alternative chicken kiev with Mozarella, brushetta, pizza topping, or even burgers!.