If you’re like most North Americans, you think of sunny Mediterranean pesto, that wonderful blend of fresh basil, nuts, cheese and olive oil, as a sauce for pasta. But in Italy, where it comes from, it is known as a “condimento”—and is not only added to pasta, but also to vegetables and soups. Pesto is highly versatile. This often high-fat, high-calorie sauce can be made healthier…less expensive…and without common allergens. There are many variations of pesto, according to Fred Plotkin, an award-winning expert on Italian cooking and author of several cookbooks, including the well-known book Recipes From Paradise: Life and Food on the Italian Riviera (Little, Brown), which focuses on food from the Liguria region of Italy, where pesto originated. He shared the secret of making great pesto…and some of his favorite variations…
In Italian, pesto means “I pound,” which is why cooks from Liguria share a method of preparing this pungent sauce. Rather than using a food processor or blender, which creates heat that damages the ingredients, they favor a mortar and pestle, which creates a wonderfully nubbly textured pesto. With a mortar and pestle, you can use about half the olive oil (one-quarter cup rather than the one-half cup or more that usually is called for when using a blender). Even though olive oil is healthful, using less of it translates to fewer calories. Mortar and pestles are sold in kitchenware stores and online for about $12 to $40.
Nuts: Pine nuts, from the cones of pine trees native to Italy, are a classic pesto ingredient. Imported Italian pine nuts are expensive, about $36 a pound. Other less expensive, but delicious, choices: Ligurians sometimes use walnuts for a nutty, less sweet pesto than that with pine nuts, and Sicilians make a pesto using almonds. You can use either raw or roasted nuts.
Cheese: In Italy, several cheeses are used for pesto, including Parmigiano and pecorino, made from sheep’s milk. Pecorino is a good choice because many people don’t tolerate cheese made from cow’s milk.
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
All the varieties of pesto described here result in a thick and intensely flavored sauce. Fresh pesto is best used the day it is made.
Makes about 8 tablespoons. (For a serving of pasta, you need 2 tablespoons.)
Place a pinch of coarse sea salt in a mortar.
Tear up 40 large basil leaves, removing the stems and center veins. Gradually add the basil to the mortar, pounding the leaves until they are wet and mushy.
Add 2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped, and pound just until they are mashed and moist.
Add 1⁄3 cup chopped pine nuts or walnuts (raw or roasted), pounding until they are reduced to a paste. Stir the pestle a few times to combine the ingredients.
Add 8 teaspoons finely grated pecorino cheese.
Add 4 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil a little at a time, working the pestle to make a creamy, textured sauce.
Using spinach along with basil is an option when large amounts of basil are costly.
Use 12 large basil leaves and 12 baby spinach leaves, 1 garlic clove, 3 tablespoons slivered raw almonds or shelled pistachios, ¼ cup cheese and ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil. Makes about 8 tablespoons.
Replace the cheese with 4 tablespoons of chopped raw cashews. Makes about 8 tablespoons.
For nut-free pesto, we will travel to France, where the French condiment pistou, similar to pesto, is made without nuts. You can follow the classic pesto recipe above—just leave out the nuts and use Parmigiano cheese.