How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

A vibrant pesto recipe taught to me by my friend Francesca’s mother who came to visit from Genoa, Italy. Made with hand-chopped basil, garlic, Parmesan, olive oil and pine nuts. The real deal.

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If you’ve ever tasted pesto in Italy you know that the pesto here in the United States just isn’t the same. I received a lesson in how to make pesto from a real Italian grandmother last week and now I understand the difference and what makes this pesto recipe so special.
How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

A Special Pesto

My friend Francesca makes the trip from her small town near the pesto-epicenter of Genoa, Italy to San Francisco once or twice a year – this time (lucky for us) she brought her mom and two-year old son Mattia. Her mom makes a beautiful pesto (and perfectly light, potato gnocchi to go along with it) and offered to show me and my friend Jen how it is done. I have to say, it was a complete game-changer. If you love pesto, you really have to try this. Her technique results in an incredibly special version.
A lot of Chopped Basil is the First Step to Pesto

Pesto Technique

Most of the pesto you encounter here in the U.S. is different for a few reasons. First off, most of what you see is made by machine, usually a food processor or hand blender. This holds true even if it is homemade. Don’t get me wrong, it usually tastes good, but because the ingredients aren’t hand chopped you end up with a texture that is more like like a moist, uniform paste with little to no definition between ingredients. This pesto is something different.

During my lesson I quickly began to realize chopping all the ingredients by hand is key because this prevents the ingredients from becoming a completely homogenized emulsion or paste. When you dress a pasta with a pesto that has been hand chopped the minuscule flecks of basil will separate from the olive oil, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese in places. You get definition between ingredients, and bright flavors pop in a way they don’t when they’ve been blended into one.
Fresh Basil Leaves before Being Chopped into Pesto

Video: How to Make Pesto





Choosing The Best Basil for Making Pesto

Genovese pesto is famous in part because it is often made with young, small basil leaves. For us non-Italians it is easy to find Genovese basil in stores and at farmer’s markets, particularly in the summer. That said, chances are it wasn’t picked young. I wouldn’t worry about it too much, simply by hand chopping all your ingredients, you will see a major shift in personality of your pesto.
Close Up Photo of Pesto before Adding Olive Oil

Chop by Hand or Blender?

Per the above, this pesto celebrates hand-chopping. Correspondingly, if you’re serious about making good pesto using the hand-chop technique you’ll need a sharp (preferably large, single blade) mezzaluna, or a good knife. The sharpness of your blade absolutely matters because you don’t want to bruise or tear your basil. Whatever you use to chop, make sure it has a sharp blade or the basil will turn dark. Chopping the ingredients will take twenty minutes or so. Once you chop your ingredients, you’ll form them into a cake, pictured above. You add olive oil to this cake, and it’s magic – below.

How to Store Basil

There are a number of great ways to keep basil fresh until you’re ready to use it. If you think you’ll use it within a day or two, keep the basil in a jar of water on your countertop. The way you’d keep a bouquet of flowers. If you think it will be a few days beyond that, treat the basil like you would salad greens. Give the basil a gentle wash, then wrap the leaves in a clean kitchen towel or paper towels, place this in a baggie, and refrigerate until ready to use.

How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother - Finished Pesto in A Jar

Favorite Ways to Use Pesto

There are so many great ways to use pesto – some traditional, many not. I love a thick slather as the base sauce on a good pizza. Or on a tart before adding other toppings. If you have a slab of sourdough coming off the grill, a bit of pesto, some seasonal roasted veggies, and a dusting of cheese makes an easy meal. And because it lends a bolt of flavor, I love to whisk a dollop into scrambled eggs, or an omelette, mashed potatoes, or on baked potatoes.

How to Store Pesto

Generally speaking, store any pesto you might use in the next day or two, refrigerated, under a thin film of olive oil. You can also freeze it in snack-sized baggies. Thaw and toss with whatever gnocchi, ravioli, or other favorite pasta you like – and a good splash of pasta water!

  • How Do I Keep Pesto from Turning Brown? There are a couple ways to keep your pesto bright green. Browning comes from oxidizing. One way to prevent this is to limit exposure to air. Because of this, I like to keep pesto in my narrowest jar with a thin layer of olive oil on top so that no pesto is exposed to air. The other option is to blanch your basil leaves briefly, and proceed with your pesto-making from there. I almost always opt for option one.
  • Can Pesto Be Frozen? Yes! You can absolutely freeze pesto. Any pesto you won’t use within a couple days, transfer to freezer baggies. Freeze flat, and break off chunks of pesto to use whenever you need it. When you need larger quantities defrost the entire bag either in the refrigerator or on your countertop.

Pesto Variations

Don’t limit yourself to basil pesto. You can absolutely experiment with other herbs as well. You can add anything from parsley to marjoram (a favorite!), mint to fresh oregano to your basil base. Or leave the basil out entirely! I like to add citrus zest on occasion, or switch up the type of nuts I use – toasted almonds and walnuts are favorites.

Let me know if you try this and what you think! Use your beautiful fresh pesto with this gnocchi recipe. Or this simple homemade pasta, bruschetta, pappardelle, or cavatelli. Tutto bene!

 

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