Perfecting Pesto

Confession: I am a failed gardener. While I can grow flowers with the best of them, I have never nurtured a successful vegetable garden from seed to kitchen. My maternal grandmother Martha, who was the best cook I have ever known, started her seeds in February and transplanted the sturdy plants into rich soil in May, harvesting lush and perfect vegetables all summer long. My seedlings developed damping off disease.  My soil is irresistible to quack grass. I once asked her the secret for her perfect garden, with lush plants and incredible yield,. She said, “when I see a weed, I pull it out.”

Well. When I first planted a vegetable garden 30 years ago, my ears of corn were about three inches long, the tomatoes all had blossom end rot, and the bell peppers were tiny and sour.  Phooey!

But, at the very least, I can grow basil. Thankfully.

We live in a house on a hill that slopes steeply up and away from the back deck. There isn’t room for a traditional vegetable garden. But that deck is sheltered from the elements with perfect southern exposure. And every year I grow pots of basil for pesto. Because I’m in love with pesto.

Pesto is a traditional sauce invented by Genoans in northern Italy. Classic pesto is made by combining fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, salt, extra-virgin olive oil, and Parmesan cheese in a mortar and pestle. In Italy, it is usually tossed with hot cooked pasta, or used as a topping for minestrone. In other parts of the world, pesto is used as a condiment, as a pizza topping, sandwich spread, and salad dressing.

You don’t need a specific recipe to make pesto. You do need impeccably fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, and the best Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sometimes Pecorino Romano, and extra-virgin olive oil. Because pesto is a simple sauce, all of the ingredients shine and should be top-notch.  A large bunch of basil, two or three cloves of garlic, a handful of pine nuts, a couple of handfuls of Parmesan cheese, and a generous drizzle of olive oil will do the trick.

Pesto can be made with a mortar and pestle, in the food processor or blender, or by chopping. If you choose to use mechanical means to make it, make sure you just pulse the ingredients. You want your pesto to have some texture; pulverizing everything defeats the freshness of the product.

To make pesto the classic Italian way, start by pounding garlic with some salt in a mortar and pestle. The salt helps break down the garlic and starts creating the sauce. Then add the pine nuts and work them into the garlic. The basil is added next. Some aficionados blanch their basil in boiling water for just a few seconds to set the color, but that isn’t necessary. Pound until the leaves break down to a fine texture, adding oil as you work to make a creamy mixture. Cheese is stirred in at the very end, not pounded, to preserve its texture. That’s it!

In the past several decades, the love of pesto really took off in the United States. And enterprising cooks have experimented with many other ingredients to make this condiment. Recipes for sun-dried tomato pesto, cilantro pesto, mint pesto, and red bell pepper pesto, and even eggplant pesto are now commonplace.

To stretch pasta, I will sometimes add sweet and tender baby spinach leaves and a hint of lemon juice, however blasphemous that may seem to a native Italian. The lemon helps the pesto retain its bright green color and the spinach adds a sweet, slightly earthy note along with cutting the cost. Remember, you can experiment however you like in your own kitchen. Who knows what masterpiece you’ll create?

I harvest basil several times a year and make pesto that I freeze in ice cube trays. In the middle of winter, I can thaw those beautiful green cubes to make a fabulous silky sauce for pasta. Or I can toss a cube into soup just before serving to add a delicious punch of flavor. I also love to combine pesto with cream cheese and chopped vegetables for a fabulous sandwich spread.

Even if you don’t have an inch of dirt you can call your own, you can grow basil in pots, on your doorstep or a sunny windowsill. And enjoy the fruits of your labor year round.