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Basil Pesto

Next to ripe, home-grown tomatoes (a juxtaposition that I choose with conscious intent), there's hardly a dish that says "summer" more boldly than fresh basil pesto.

With basil coming on strong these midsummer days (apologies to readers Down Under who'll just have to wait), this seemed like the perfect time to whip up a batch.

You can generally buy fresh basil in groceries and produce stores at a premium price, but it's easy to grow your own in moderate climates. In this part of the world, we usually put a few small plants in the ground in May, after any chance of frost has passed, and start picking a few leaves judiciously within a couple of weeks. By June you'll have so much that you can't use it all, and - like the tomatoes with which it goes so well - it lasts until autumn's first freeze blackens it overnight. Basil requires little maintenance other than perhaps watering if it's very dry, although for esthetic purposes alone it's worth the effort periodically to pinch off the seed-bearing spears that pop out of the middle of each sprig as summer wears on.

Like most herbs, basil comes in a bewildering array of varieties, including some that come up purple and some Asian strains like Thai basil, which are good but, to my taste buds, show a distinct flavor difference from the European variety. I generally look for plants labeled "Italian" or "Genovese" or "Florentine" or the equivalent for the best results with pesto and other Italian and Mediterranean-style dishes, but don't worry overmuch about these details. If it's fresh, it's going to be good.

In a lyrical introduction to the subject in her excellent "Classic Italian Cookbook," Marcella Hazan writes that pesto is an invention of the Genoese, using the basil that thrives on Italy's riviera coast, Liguria.

"If the definition of poetry allowed that it could be composed with the products of the field as well as with words," she writes, "pesto would be in every anthology. Like much good poetry, pesto is made of simple stuff. It is simply fresh basil, garlic, cheese and olive oil hand-ground into sauce. There is nothing more to it than that, but every spoonful is loaded with the magic fragrances of the Riviera."

I can't improve on that, so I won't try.

The name "pesto" may be akin to the English "paste," which is descriptive if not fully sufficient. Purists insist on grinding all the ingredients by hand with a mortar and pestle, but in my mind, this is the kind of dish that the food processor was made to accommodate. It's much quicker and easier, and the results are fine.

My standard recipe started years ago with Hazan's original but has evolved over time based on experimentation and frequent happy opportunities to taste the stuff in Genoa and elsewhere in Italy. Like most traditional country dishes, it comes in scores of variations, and there's no rule against altering it to your taste. I like to add pine nuts; many recipes stretch or even replace the basil with parsley or spinach, although I've never understood the reasoning behind this in a dish that genuine basil serves so well.

In its simplest presentation, you need do no more than dollop a spoonful or two of fresh pesto over a bowl of steaming pasta - the Genoese love trenette, which isn't always easy to find, but you can substitute the similar linguine, or fettuccine, or spaghetti, or any long pasta or any pasta at all. For a slightly fancier Genoese treat, try pesto on long pasta with sliced steamed potatoes and crisp-tender green beans mixed in. Nor need you stop with pasta. Once you've got some pesto on hand, try smearing a little on fresh, sliced tomatoes (maybe topping each slice with a bit of fresh mozzarella to make a variation on the Italian salad caprese). Poke a little under the breast skin of a chicken before roasting. Or slather a little atop a piece of grilled fish, or even a steak.

Pesto is good. Here's how I make it.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

2 or 3 cups (500 ml to 750 ml) fresh basil leaves
2 large cloves garlic
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 cup (60 ml) olive oil plus additional to taste
Black pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano


1. Pick the basil - it's best to use it immediately after harvesting - and pick off and discard any stems and seed pods. If you've grown your own, it's best not to wash it, as rinsing the leaves in water seems likely to wash off some of the aromatic oils that make it so good. If you got yours at the store ... use your own judgement.

2. Mince the garlic, and cook it in 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a small pan over medium-high heat until the garlic is translucent. Add the pine nuts, and cook until the pine nuts and the garlic are turning light golden-brown. (If you're in a hurry, or a traditionalist, this step is not necessary - you can make the pesto with raw garlic and un-toasted pine nuts. But I like the way that sauteeing mellows the garlic, adds a toasty flavor and scents the oil.) Remove from heat and allow it to cool for a few moments.

3. Put the basil in the bowl of your food processor (using the steel blade). Add the oil, garlic and pine-nut mix, 1 teaspoon salt, and black pepper to taste. Process quickly into a rough paste; then continue processing as you pour in additional olive oil until you have a thick, fairly smooth paste. Stir in the grated Parmigiano, and it's ready to serve over pasta or in any dish that suits your fancy.

Leftover pesto keeps in the refrigerator for several days. I generally keep it in a small plastic tub with a tight lid. The top will turn dark greenish-brown, but don't worry; it's still edible, and the pesto underneath should remain an attractive bright basil-green.

MATCHING WINE: Maybe it's just a matter of mental association, but I find that simple pesto on pasta works fine with a crisp, fruity Italian red, a Chianti or Montepulciano for example. If you want a white, try it with a herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: pesto"

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Thursday, July 29, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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