Pesto. I vividly remember my introduction to this unctuous blend of basil, garlic, pine-nuts and cheese. It was in the fall of 1959 and my aunt had returned home from a two-month vacation in Italy. Among the many things she brought back with her were two small green-and-gold cans of something called “pesto.” They looked so plain compared to the cases of wine, boxes of candy, and a plethora of colorful souvenirs.
When I asked her about the cans, she told me that they contained “pesto,” a sauce for pasta. Now mind you, in our home, any sauce for pasta was made from scratch. And my aunt, a talented cook, had quite a repertoire of them. “Sauce from a can?” I said. “Yes,” she replied, “you’ll be surprised how good it is.”
Back in the late ’50s and even through the ‘60s, pesto did not enjoy the popularity it has today. As a result, I had no idea what to expect when a few days later she decided to prepare the dish for our family. When she opened the can and I saw the dark green gunk, all I could say was “Yuck!” She emptied it into a bowl, tasted it, and said it needed some help. She pureed some fresh garlic, grated some pecorino cheese, and stirred them into the sauce with a little olive oil. She re-tasted the sauce and judged it acceptable. “Aren’t you going to cook it?” “No, she said, pesto is never cooked.”
I went back to my homework and when called to the dinner table, I saw this platter of spaghetti laced with a vibrant green sauce.The other members of my family shared my skepticism about this pasta. My aunt, refusing to acknowledge any of us, proceeded to portion out the pasta and distribute the plates.
I watched my family slowly twirling the green strands of pasta onto their forks. No one wanted to be the first to taste it. “Mmmm, delizioso,” said my aunt. I had to admit the aroma of basil, garlic, and cheese made it easier for me to take my first mouthful. “Delizioso!” I said and my aunt just smiled. Most of my family agreed, except for my father, who insisted it would be better with some tomato. Thereafter, whenever we had pesto, my father’s was dressed with a few thin slices of a peeled San Marzano tomato.
After her two cans of pesto were gone, my aunt decided to turn to her copy of Ada Boni’s Talismano della Felicita for the traditional recipe. Back then, before the pesto craze in the ‘70s, it was the only way we could enjoy it.
Over the weekend, I had purchased some basil and forgot about until the other night. It was too hot to cook, so I thought it would be perfect night for pesto. For years, I’ve been following my own recipe based on my aunt’s, but wanting to try something new, I turned to Mario Batali’s Italian Grill. His recipe uses a food processor as opposed to the traditional mortar and pestle, and I have to admit that I prefer the texture I was able to achieve with it. But when using a food processor, you must be careful not to over process. Stirring in the cheeses after processing the basil also makes for an optimal texture.
Pesto Adapted from Mario Batali’s Italian Grill (makes about 1 cup)
3 garlic cloves
2 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
3 tablespoons pine nuts
Generous pinch of Kosher salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
4 tablespoons freshly grated Percorino Romano
With the motor running, drop garlic into a food processor to chop it. Pulse until the garlic is finely chopped. Add the basil, pine nuts, and salt and pulse until the the basil and nuts are coarsely chopped and then process until finely chopped. Be careful not to over process.
With motor running, drizzle in the oil. If the mixture is too thick, you may need to add a little more olive oil.
Transfer to a small bowl and stir in both Parmigiano and pecorino.
(The pesto can be stored in a tightly sealed jar, topped with a thin layer of extra-virgin olive oil, for several weeks in the refrigerator.)
This recipe makes enough sauce for a pound of pasta.
Wine Pairing: Vermentino