Until spending time in Cinque Terre, Italy, I hadn’t had much pesto in my life. Not sure if it was the intimidating color, the name’s meaning (means “to pound,” yikes!) or the fact that my husband claimed he was never a big pesto fan.
Yet, on our first night in Vernazza, sitting at a restaurant on the sea, we followed an antipasti plate of fresh fish with a big, heaping bowl of spaghetti topped with the greenest, freshest, most flavorful sauce I have never had. And it was, of course, pesto.
As you can imagine, upon returning from the trip when I contemplated making my own pesto, I had no arguments from my husband. We had found a new love and new appreciation for this sauce that originates in the Ligurian coast of Italy.
I pulled this recipe from La Cucina Italiana (have I mentioned I am obsessed with this magazine?). Seemed simple and authentic – pine nuts, basil, parmigiano reggiano and pecorino romano, garlic, sea salt and olive oil. But the mistake I made was trying to make it the authentic way – without authentic tools.
Pesto is made is a mortar and pestle. Why not? If that is how the Italians do it, then that is how I will do it. The small problem (well big problem) was, that I didn’t have one. My substitution was a muddler, and it was a sad replacement. So, alas, my pesto ended up in a food processor. The result tasted fantastic, but it made me put a mortar and pestle (authentic marble, of course) on my Christmas list so I can be a true Ligurian next time I indulge in this green goodness.
Authentic tools or modern luxuries – either way I encourage you to try this simple sauce next you want to vary your color palate and your culinary palate.
PASTA WITH BASIL PESTO
¼ cup pine nuts
2 cups tightly packed basil leaves
2 garlic cloves, lightly smashed, peel removed
Coarse sea salt
6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino romano cheese
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb pasta of your choice
Place pine nuts in a medium skillet and heat over medium-low heat. Cook, occasionally shaking the pan back and forth over the heat, until nuts are toasted, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer nuts to a plate to cool completely.
Rinse basil and gently, but thoroughly, pat dry with paper towels. Place in a mortar with cooled pine nuts, garlic and pinch salt. Using the pestle with a rotary movement, grind ingredients against the wall of the mortar, until ground to a paste. Add both cheeses and grind into mixture to combine.
Transfer mixture to a large bowl. In a slow and steady steam, add oil, whisking constantly.
Pesto is best used the same day but keeps, its surface covered with a thin layer of olive oil and tightly covered, chilled, for 3 days.
To dress pasta, dilute pesto with a tablespoon or two of pasta cooking water, toss with hot pasta (just cooked and drained), add a tablespoon or two of butter and toss again. Serve at once.