There’s a booth at the Calabasas Farmer’s Market, tucked way in the back, that’s easy to walk past if you’re not paying attention; they caught my eye a few weeks ago, and they have quickly become one of my favorite stops on Saturday morning, as they sell hefty, fat bunches of fresh herbs, 6 for $5. You can mix and match, so I always come home with basil, parsley, cilantro and usually some green onions or radishes (also on the 6-for-5 table). This time, since I had planned for making tomato sauce to freeze this week, I needed basil, and went ahead and bought more than I could ever use in a batch of sauce.
A quick check of my fridge confirmed that I had everything I needed: it was time to make some pesto.
Pesto may be really one of the few things I can just keep on eating by the spoonful. There’s just something about the fresh green hint-of-anise of basil, the hot bite of raw garlic, the earthiness of the pine nuts and the sharpness from the Parmesan (or Pecorino, if you’re being a traditionalist) that is absolutely delightful to me. It’s remarkably versatile, from a pasta sauce to being stirred into a steaming bowl of minestrone, or mixed in with mayonnaise to make a sandwich or a burger more interesting.
If you’re up for doing something the way it was once done, you can follow the description noted by Waverly Root in The Food of Italy:
The soul of pesto is basil, and the patience and care characteristic of Genoese cooking appear from the very start of pesto making in the meticulous preparation of the basil. It is first deprived of its stems and central veins; only the deveined leaves go into the mortar in which it will be ground. Pesto makers are adamant on this point: no one can chop the ingredients fine enough; they must be ground, and, it is specified, in a marble mortar (with a pestle “of good wood,” one recipe adds, but does not insist on any specific sort of wood). You begin by crushing the basil leaves carefully with coarse kitchen salt and a clove of garlic. The tender green color of this mixture is your guide for the rest of the process. It should be maintained as the other ingredients are added; if it weakens, put in more basil. Next you add equal parts of young Sardinian pecorino cheese and old Parmesan (if you want a stronger taste, increase the proportion of the sharp Sardinian cheese; if you want it milder, decrease it). As you grind this with the rest, add olive oil (preferably Ligurian) drop by drop until you have achieved the desired density (you may want it thicker for soup than for pasta). The last ingredient is pine nuts (some persons use walnuts instead), which must also be crushed so thoroughly that they become so indistinguishable part of the whole pungent creamy mass.
Or, pull out the food processor.
This is one of those things I really don’t use a recipe, but this is a pretty basic ratio:
3 cups fresh washed basil leaves
2 cloves of garlic (I like mine garlicky, I’ll use about 4-6 cloves)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
1/2 cup toasted Pine Nuts
1/2 to 1 cup olive oil (use less if you want more of a paste)
salt to taste (expect around 1/2 to 1 tsp)
Put basil, garlic, pine nuts, and cheese in processor and pulse while drizzling in olive oil until pesto is a desired consistency. Stir in salt and use immediately, or pour into an air-tight container. To keep your pesto from turning dark on the exposed surface, pour a layer of olive oil on top, just enough to cover the pesto fully. It will be good in your refrigerator for a week, or if you plan to use it later, pesto can easily be frozen.
Make a batch before basil goes completely out of season.