Pesto isn’t exactly the recipe of the season, since basil is best at the height of summer. Still, in the middle of winter a nice pesto is a breath of freshness and a promise of the coming seasons. For those of us in the warmer climes, getting some fresh organic basil will be easier, but for those of us where winter has a bite there are plenty of greenhouse gardens capable of supplying the couple of cups of basil necessary for this dish.
A little bit of history
We get the word pesto from the italian word pestare by way of the Genovese dialect. Pestare means “to pound”, and shares roots with the word “pestle”, which makes sense because the traditional way of making pesto involves using a mortar and pestle to combine the ingredients. These days a food processor does the heavy lifting, but if you have a mortar and pestle and are willing to spend a few extra minutes, grinding the nuts and garlic together before adding the leaves has a distinct affect on the texture of the sauce.
Pesto originates in Genoa, where as early as the 17th Century mention is made of making fresh sauces by mashing the ingredients together. The recipe that we know today – basil, garlic, pine nuts, and cheese – appeared in the mid-1800’s. That recipe remains the true pesto genovese, but variants have spread and been adapted to local resources and tastes. Parsley – a common addition though not strictly traditional – is a component of French Provence’s pistou, while in southern Italy Pesto adds tomato and almonds. Though not found in the classic pesto genovese, a little parsley added to the pesto will help it keep its vivid green color longer.
As always in true Italian cooking, recipes are flexible, and so even in Genoa pine nuts might be replaced with almonds and different types of cheese might be substituted. In the earliest recorded recipe – 1863 Giovanni Battista Ratto’s La Cuciniera Genovese – recommended replacing the basil with a mixture of marjoram and parsley as an alternative to basil.
As always, the best ingredients yield the best flavor. Home grown or organic basil and garlic, a good quality olive oil, and the best imported parmigiano, grana padano, and/or pecorino you can reasonably afford will be worth the effort in the final dish.
Pesto freezes very well, so long as cheese hasn’t been added. To freeze, spoon it into the bottom of a ziplock and squeeze out the extra air. To use, just drop the sealed ziplock in a bowl of warm water for 20 minutes to defrost, and squeeze it out into a bowl and finish the recipe.