Pesto v3.0

Jim Berman CCI

Back in February, 2010, I came out with a couple of pieces on Pesto, that beloved amalgam of green, summer goodness. Since then, through many iterations, revisions and interpretations, I have changed my ways. Below is the original recipe, with a few changes in latitude and longitude. And there are some pictures thrown in, as well. My reflections are duly noted will make for more fodder when I circle back after even more recapitulations. No verbose history, origins of the ingredients and the like. Rather, a head-on recipe that works will in the sweltering summer months.


At our last meeting, we began a discussion on the allure of Pesto. The basil, garlic, oil, cheese and nuts were all lined up awaiting orders to assemble. With some careful scouring, good basil can be had. Fresh garlic is a staple, as are quality oil and premium Parmigiano. We can do much with these components alone, but we can make sweet music when congregated.

Here's the best with measures I can do-

1 Cup, minimally packed fresh basil leaves torn from their stem and not compacted into the measuring cup (JB: The strip-from-the stems part can not be skipped. The fibrous construct of mature basil stalks will leave something akin to dental floss neatly embedded in your dental work. Baby stems, ok. Old stems, bad. Save the trunks and allow them to dry; soak in water and lay them on the coals whilst cooking over an open flame for a smoky-basil wash on your favorite slab of beef.)

2 Tablespoons, chopped fresh garlic

1 Tablespoon, unsalted sunflower seeds, shells removed (JB: The traditionalist in me has awaken: pine nuts bring more flavor and the texture is unmistakable. Opt for the more pricy pignoli and save the sunflower seeds for the baseball team)

3 Tablespoons, freshly grated Parmigiano cheese (or Asiago or Pecorino)

½ Cup, Canola Oil (JB: Again, after bearing witness to some pesto creationism in Italy, the purist says go with first-pressed olive oil… and don’t be cheap!)

Salt, preferably sea salt
Pepper (from a mill not from who-knows-how-old jar)

My preference for equipment is my trusty mortar and pestle. It yields a better product as the basil leaves adequately "bruise" and release their naturally occurring oils rather than just reduced to grass clippings in a food processor, however, the processor will do a respectable job, as does a blender. I "muddle" the basil leaves, garlic and seeds until they resemble lumpy, green mortar. Mix in the cheese and then add the oil. Season, rather liberally, with the salt and pepper. (JB: As my focus on time in the kitchen must be budgeted more wisely, I have returned a food processor for my pesto construction. Ensure that the blade on said processor is honed and the end product is perfectly pasty in texture and verdant in appearance.)

This is not fail-safe and it will not always yield perfectly balanced flavor. There are variables with which we must contend. The pungent, licorice tendency of the basil can be cause for adjusting ingredients. (JB: If you stick with seasonal basil, more than likely from your favorite produce stand – or neighbor’s garden – the licorice pungency will be kept out of the equation; that overbearing fennel-like aroma comes from some of the basil that has grown in distant lands during a time when it simply is not in season. Solution? Make it in the summer.) Cheese specimens yield various nuttiness in their respective flavors. Time, too, can be a factor. If the pesto is consumed when first composed, you may find a very different flavor then if it is allowed to "rest".

All that said, it really is worth the try and inevitable retries to get to the ultimate in flavor. With green, aromatic mixture in hand, it needs a home. It does well to dress of bowl of piping hot pasta. Allow the heat of the pasta to gently warm the pesto rather than cooking the pesto, as intense heat will quickly scorch away the subtle flavor of the fresh ingredients. Salmon smeared with the pesto is a quick fix for dinner. A bit more effort, but worth the reward, goes into folding some pesto in some simmering cream  and does well tossed with fettucinne, mushrooms, broccoli, plum tomatoes and asparagus, or any combination thereof.

Pesto is as versatile as the ingredients are valuable. Put some thought into the simplicity that defines pesto and you will find it does well to compliment a complex palate.