Pesto was one of my first culinary romances. I guess I was about thirteen when I started making it regularly, and it has a special place in my heart. It’s one of the most versatile condiments you can make – goes with fish, chicken, red meat, seafood, vegetables, in soup, as flavoring in mayo or other sauces, on stews and stir fries … on anything really. I’ve wanted to do a pesto special for a long time, so let’s get to it and take a look at the essential ingredients!
Herbs. Traditionally basil, but you can use any herb. Basil-only pesto is great, and very aromatic. Some basil types have an almost clove-like taste and smell. But from the wonderful world of herbs you can take your pick; use one, all of them or a select few. Experiment. Find out what you like. I use what’s at hand. That’s usually basil and flat leaf parsley (I buy it in large bundles at markets) but occasionally a few sprigs of thyme (though I never liked too much of this one in pesto) make it into the mortar. If you really want quirky you can go collect some edible weeds in your area. No kidding! There are a lot of aromatic and nutritious weeds out there, for example dandelion, nettles or goutweed. Consult an expert, and make sure you don’t pick anything too close to traffic!
Garlic. The only variational possibility here is really the amount, and for that I have this simple rule: If the pesto is to be eaten immediately, I use less (about two bulbs to a full mortar); and if it is to rest overnight, I use more (4 – 5 bulbs).
Nuts. Most recipes call for pine nuts, and they are delicious – but expensieve, and not unique. At first I exclusively used pine nuts, and though they are certainly suitable because of their high oil content; so are walnuts. I now mostly use walnuts and pistachios in an about 50/50 ratio, and find this works very well. If you desire variation in texture, try almonds. You’ll get a much thicker paste with less nuts, and the taste and feel reminds (not surprisingly) of marzipan.
Oil. The ingredient with which I have been the most consistent through the years, I have kept to olive oil (although I did cheat once with coconut oil and liked it). Olive oil is one of my favorite ingredients whatsoever, I simply love the taste. Strangely enough I’ve used it less after I discovered the paleo diet. Must be remedied.
Cheese. This is actually the one ingredient one can do without – if you do a strict paleo your pesto will be just fine with the four previous ingredients. But cheese does make everything better, of course! The traditional pesto cheese is Parmesan, which is great. I like the Swiss Gruyère, and since it frequently occupies my fridge, it goes in the pesto all the time. For a time I was hooked on cream cheese, which gives a soft, smooth and rounded result.
As for equipment a food processor or hand mixer works fine – and is of course ideal if you need to upscale. But truly fine pesto is made in a mortar. Sounds a bit old-fashioned? Try it for yourself – you’ll be surprised at the revelation of flavors and how they blend in a considerably subtler way when the ingredients are ground, not cut. The word “pesto” itself comes from the Italian pestare, which means to crush or grind. So be a geek and get yourself a nice big mortar, fill it up and pound away. Mine (the picture above) is granite and I’ve come to love it as it’s decorative, too. I suspect I will acquire several others in my life.
The technique will come to you. It’s really easy. A tip though: crush the garlic first, so it’ll be evenly spread. And don’t add too much oil in the beginning – it’ll be all over you! You’ll work out the scale too, just add ingredients little by little while grinding. Season to taste with sea salt and plack pepper. But be careful! When I do this, there’s a rear danger that I “taste” half of the pesto …
Hope you enjoyed this pesto special, and most of all I hope you’ll enjoy making it! It feels really good to bash and beat and see the pesto taking shape. Also for me just working oil into things is soul nurturing. But I’m a little weird. In a good way.