Pesto. With More Garlic.

This is really the best pesto I’ve ever had. Without irony or exaggeration, the best pesto in any house, restaurant, or country I’ve every been in. It’s a bit tricky, as with most secret recipes, because not everything is measured exactly but added as needed. I’m just getting around to posting how to make it, back from a post I made a summer ago.

Pesto on wheat pasta, with farmer's market tomatoes and salt, pork, and fresh bread with a pesto shmear.
Pesto: Delicious year round! With pasta, fresh July tomatos, and pork. A generous smear on bread helps "lick the bowl." (Photo from the summer. Mm, in season tomatoes!)

The key here is to get strong ingredients. Go for Thai basil, the kind with the purple stems; a good quality strong parmesan that’s firm but not rock hard from age; and an extra virgin olive oil you, with a surely discriminating taste, are particularly fond of (ha, or try the extra virgin cold press one I like from Colavita, below, if, like most people who don’t use mounds of it every day, you can’t tell the difference as long as they are all extra virgin).  If you love lots of garlic, this is best the first day, especially before it even goes into the refrigerator, when the tastes have yet to meld and the garlic is especially sharp, harsh even.

From a much loved, ancient cookbook. Though I think it's the only recipe anyone uses from it. And the recipe isn't exactly, as you might say, followed.

Prep: grate the parmesan cheese (1/2 cup); Wash the basil (enough for 2 cups leaves). Take off the leaves discarding all the stems, seeds, and any leaves that have gone bad.  A bit of black at the tip or along folded lines is OK in the thai variety of basil, but nothing that is all black, at all ‘slimy,’ or that generally looks or smells non-appetizing.  Measure after de-stemming.  At this point you’ll notice that I have a bit of disagreement with the original recipe over reasonable substitutions. Don’t use dried basil. I don’t usually use anything other than this kind of basil as it gives a stronger flavor than the usual kind you find here, but of course pesto can be made with just about anything that is green, and some things that aren’t. I find thai basil in a pan asian (owner’s vietnamese but originally from china, so mostly those two but there’s a mix) grocery, but have very occasionally seen it in big grocery stores too.

Put 2 Tablespoons of pine nuts and 2 Tablespoons of chopped garlic in a blender and cover with extra olive oil. Note: this is a lot more garlic than suggested, but I recommend trying it the first time and lowering it if you’d prefer less.

Note: in the photo is a *tripled* recipe 'cause it's the holidays and it always pays to have extra pesto around!
Top view of pine nuts and garlic resting in olive oil. Good, flavorful olive oil comes in many gold and green tones.

Next, blend the nuts and garlic for about a minute till they are well pulverized.

Pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil after blending.

Add some of the basil leaves. Blend for a minute till chopped into the tasty garlic-pine nut-olive oil mixture. I much prefer my pesto to have some texture, but there is nothing apocryphal about liking it drip-able as they suggest in the book. If you like it that way just keep blending till it’s really, really smooth. I find my blender is more than strong enough not to need to stop it “every 6 seconds” as recommended by the book. I suspect that blenders were much lower powered in 1968.

Repeat a couple times till you use up about half (1 cup) of the basil.

Add basil a large pinch or small fist at a time. I prefer to blend until just homogenous to give it some texture. (note again, this was a giant triple batch)
Blend till chopped and mixed. When it ceases to mix because it's too dry you need to add a few splashes of olive oil (Yep, by feel. But it's a good rule that if you add enough to unstick the mechanisms when stirred it'll be about the right amount.)

Add the recommended 1 teaspoon of salt and much less, but still a reasonable amount of, say, 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper though I don’t really measure the pepper and if I have a double or triple recipe it tends to be less than half the salt as you can see. In general with salt, baking powders, or other small things that will make a big difference, I measure them into a small bowl first. That lets me do it ahead of time, but, more importantly, it lets me avoid catastrophe when, inevitably no matter how rarely, I spill or worse while measuring.  And is a handy bowl-cum-mortar and pestle for getting rid of clumps with the teaspoon when measuring baking soda or powder! But back on topic… If you put the salt and pepper in first it tends to not mix throughout as well and there are saltier and less salty parts of the pesto. Garlic and pine nuts do not seem to have this problem.

Salt and freshly ground pepper. Don't put in till halfway through adding the basil leaves.

Keep adding basil. Add more olive oil as needed if the blender stops mixing. You can also help by using a small rubber/silicon spatula to scrape down the sides. Try and use one you do not mind ruining because it is easy to catch it on the blades and chop up the tip a bit.

Add the parmesan cheese after all the basil is blended. This will thicken the pesto a great deal. It’s OK if your blender has a harder time, that’s why you did everything else first. My newer blender is certainly a lot more powerful than my old one; I used to need a spatula to encourage it to mix at the end. Now I scrape down the sides a couple times, but that’s about it.

Use a really good parmesan cheese if you have a choice. Add it and the very end.

Parmesan, aka, parmigiano-reggiano, is originally from the northern parts of Italy, though these days there are imitations made around the world. It adds salt and thickness and also, if it’s a good cheese, a delicious flavor.

This one's from Italy. I was amused that it was actually labeled as itself on the rind! As certified by the Consorzio. Europeans are intense about their food stuff's names and controlling what and where your cows feed and how long you brine it for and everything else. Intense!

Go some day your local cheese shop at the grocery has tastings and get one you really like!

I keep the pesto in old screw top jars. The top crust get discolored and a bit dry unless you cover it olive oil. But then it gets a bit too oily, so I go back and forth between doing one and the other. Refrigerate within about 24 hours of making, but leave it out the first day if you’ll eat it in that time because it’s a little different and extra deliciously sharp tasting before it goes into the fridge.

Rinse and fill with soapy water before everything dries.
Blend the suds all the way to the top.

Epiloge: Blenders are either the hardest things to get clean in the kitchen or the easiest. Pesto especially sticks like glue with the small thing leaves that have a huge surface tension that glues them to anything after drying. So, before anything dries, rinse it off and (partly) fill it with soapy water. Some blenders even have a “fast clean” speed, but just running it for a minute or two on a fast speed till it becomes all foam and cleans all the way to the top works just as well.

Try the pesto in large generous spoonfuls on pasta, like my previous post here, with summer tomatos, on pieces of sourdough toast, on pizza, or anything else you can think of.

Here’s a frozen crust about to be baked with pesto, tomatoes, kalamata olives, olive oil, and parmesan and mozzarella cheeses.

In 1968 (presumably through 1974 when it's reprinted) they used to get away with not crediting a single actual human name in the entire cookbook. Not even the editors. Crazy!

Back in 1968 no one got credit for recipes, not even the editors who compiled them. This is the table of contents from Recipes: The Cooking of Italy, one in a Time-Life series. I wanted to credit the original compiler or chef who found all these recipes but there are no names anywhere! Not on the cover, title page, recipe descriptions, nor copyright page. Times sure have changed in, well, cookbooks at least.

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