Parmesan cheese grated
1 + ½ tablespoon
Pecorino Cheese grated
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Basil Pesto is the worldwide famous Genoese sauce for seasoning pasta. Traditionally it is made beating in a marble mortar fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese (pecorino cheese, if any), all finally embraced by a generous amount of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. If you do not have enough time or a marble mortar at your disposal you can anyway easily prepare a Genoese pesto in the food processor like a local. In fact, with the right ingredients and a good recipe you can obtain an amazing basil pesto exactly as the one traditionally prepared in Liguria.
First step for a perfect homemede pesto:
pick quality ingredients
Needless to say, you need the best ingredients to make the best Pesto Sauce!
Basil is the first and main ingredient, of course. It must be very fresh, with small leaves which have a gentler taste and are easier to crush in the mortar. In Genoa we traditionally use the Pra Basil: it’s grown in Pra, a small area just outside Genoa. Leaves should only be washed if necessary (opt for organic basil), as washing removes some of the superficial essential oils. Finally they must be very dry before being processed.
All Italian Riviera sauces made in the mortar bears some nuts inside. The authentic Genoese pesto sauce is made with Pine Nuts, preferably those harvested in Tuscany, in the pine woods outside Pisa precisely. They are quite expensive, but the good news is that you don’t really need many to make your pesto (a couple of spoons may suffice). Pine nuts are important because they give pesto sweet flavor and, due to the oils that they contain, creaminess.
Garlic is what confers character to pesto. If you use “new garlic” (recently harvested) you can indulge without risking a too powerful taste. If you use “old garlic” it is better use less, as it is more pungent. Always remove the inner green bit if present as it causes indigestion. In any case adjust garlic while making pesto in order to obtain a balanced flavour. Finally, mind the quality of your garlic as it doesn’t really get cooked.
The original Italian Riviera pesto requires the one named Aglio di Vessalico, an antique variety grown in the backcountry of Albenga. It has an intense spicy and sweet flavour and special organoleptic qualities that makes it very digestible.
Some recipes call only for parmesan cheese, some add also matured pecorino cheese (which is more pungent and saltier). In this latter case the proportion should be 1/4 pecorino cheese and 3/4 parmesan cheese. As to parmesan cheese, it is better to choose an old parmesan cheese (at least 24-30 months matured). Old parmesan, in fact, melt better and gives a more defined and harmonic taste.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – The perfect one is the Italian Riviera DOP, which is delicate and not too pungent. Olive oil plays a very important role: it melts and amalgamate all the ingredients, encapsulate the essentials of the basil and prevent oxidation keeping the sparkling green colour of the sauce.
Finally, rock salt. It is needed because it helps grinding and allows to break basil leaves while using the pestle. It also prevents oxidation of the leaves during the process.
Basil and extra-virgin olive oil: tips&tricks to avoid mistakes
Remove all stems from the basil leaves. The stems, in fact, not only contain water but also bring a bitter taste.
Remove the green tip inside the garlic.
If you use a marble mortar, never smash the basil leaves but gently rotate the pestle along the mortar walls, so that the leaves are “torn up” and free their essential oils.
Taste during each step in the process and adjust accordingly. Garlic and Basil are not always the same, they can be more or less strong depending on a variety of factor, so always taste!
The very secret of pesto is balance, the right equilibrium among all the ingredients. If the pesto comes out too salty, add less parmesan cheese and, if necessary, less salt to the pasta water.
The easiest way to prepare your pesto
in a mortar: follow the steps!
- Wash the basil leaves with cold water and put them on a canvas to dry without wrecking them. They must be well dry before proceeding with the preparation of the pesto.
- Put a clove of garlic in the mortar, taking care to remove the inner green bit. Add 1/3 of the pine nuts and with an up and down motion of the pestel crush until it is reduced to a cream. Scoop out the garlic cream from the mortar and put aside. You will add it later.
- Put the remaining pine nuts in the mortar, add the basil leaves and few grains of rock salt. Rock salt is needed because it helps grinding and allows to break basil leaves while using the pestle. It also prevents oxidation. However, do not exaggerate with salt!
- Begin smashing the basil leaves with a rotating movement along the interior walls of the mortar. Basil leaves should be “torn up” not pounded. In this way they release the essential oils contained in the internal veins. Pour until an homogenous cream is obtained.
- When the last basil leaves are mixed, add the garlic cream previously left aside. Add them little at a time and taste.
- Finally, add the oil, stirring gently and making sure that the oil does not create an emulsion. After finishing the pesto, keep it under a light layer of oil to prevent oxidation.
Then add cheeses. Amalgamate and taste. Adjust with salt if necessary.
Want to use the Food Processor instead?
Here's the recipe!
If you do not have enough time or a marble mortar at your disposal you can do pesto sauce in the food processor as well, of course. There are however some tricks to adopt, especially in order to minimize oxidation:
- Put the blades and the bowl of your food processor in the freezer for 15 minutes (optional).
- Put the garlic, the pine nuts and 6 tablespoons of ROI Extra Virgin Olive Oil in the food processor bowl. Mix until smooth and homogeneous.
- Add 1/3 of the basil leaves and a pinch of salt and mix intermittently. Add the remaining leaves in two more times. Mix always intermittently until you obtain a rough cream (it does not need to be too smooth, some leaves can remain thinly cut).
- Pour the cheeses and mix always intermittently.
- With a spoon collect all the cream at the center of the bowl. Now add the remaining ROI Extra Virgin Olive Oil and stir gently with a spoon until well mixed.
- Adjust with salt to taste.
- After finishing the pesto, pour on its surface a thin layer of ROI Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Wash the basil leaves with cold water and put them on a canvas to dry without wrecking them or use a salad mixer. They must be well dry before proceeding with the preparation of the pesto. Be careful to remove the whole stem, the stems in fact contain a lot of water and are a few bitter.
How to preserve your home-made Pesto Cream Sauce
You can preserve your fresh handmade pesto in two ways. You can put it in a jar with the surface covered with a layer of ROI Extra Virgin Olive Oil. In this way you can preserve it in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. Otherwise, since with the above recipe you make 12-15 servings, you can stock your pesto in the freezer in 3-4 jars for even 2 months. When you need it either you take it out of the freezer half an hour before use to warm up, or you can put it in the microwave for 30 seconds, being very careful not to cook it! In any case remember to water it down with some spoons of your pasta boiling water before seasoning.