This anonymous quote says it all—pesto is love itself. I admit to sometimes taking a spoon to my jar of homemade pesto and eating it plain, savoring the complexity of flavor and texture from the basil to the garlic to the nuts to the cheese to the velvetiness of the olive oil.
Love at first bite
In the early 70’s, I worked in a Northern Italian Restaurant in Portland, Oregon called Genoa . . . and that’s where I first tasted Pesto Genovese (the fabulous sauce originating in Genoa in Northern Italy). As they say, it was “love at first bite.” And it’s a love that has never waned. There is just something about this classical pesto.
In June, until my basil plants start producing enough leaves to harvest, I’ll gather the arugula instead and turn it into a somewhat similar pesto by just substituting packed arugula for the basil in the recipe below. With both pestos, I prepare a double batch and freeze what we can’t eat within the week. Without self-restraint, we would eat a lot. We stir it into grains, toss it into stir-fries, swirl it into vegetable soups, blend it into hummus and spread it on crackers. And, of course, pesto is fabulous on pizza, fresh pasta, crostini and spaghetti squash.
Saveur magazine has a superb overview of pesto in their August/September 2011 issue including many varieties of pesto and many more uses for it than I ever knew or ever considered. The article emphasizes that with so few ingredients in pesto, the quality and variety of each ingredient really matters.
Besides its wonderful anise-like flavor and pungent, sweet smell, basil also has a number of health-protecting benefits based on its flavonoid, volatile oil, vitamin and mineral content.
I’ve revised my recipe for pesto over the many years I’ve been preparing it. Today’s recipe still features a lot of fresh-picked basil and fresh garlic and grated parmesan or pecorino cheese. For nutrition, economy and taste, I replace walnuts for the traditional pine nuts. As long as the walnuts are fresh-tasting, they are a great substitute.
Here’s my main alteration: the addition of fresh-from-the-garden parsley for a rounder, fuller flavor. This is something that I have noticed in other dishes as well. Fresh parsley supports and brings out and intensifies the flavor of the other herbs. I believe this happens because of the clean flavor and freshness that is fresh parsley.
(A note here: dried, store-bought parsley has a completely different flavor which bears NO resemblance to fresh parsley unless perhaps you dry it yourself and use it within a month . . . perhaps.)
In my garden, all my basil’s been harvested and the last Pesto Genovese prepared. From now until next summer, I am thrilled anew each time I defrost, open and taste a jar of homemade pesto as it fills the air once again with summer’s perfume and with love.
Yield 2 cups
2 large cloves garlic (3-4 medium)
1 cup walnuts
5 cups medium-packed basil
2 cups medium-packed parsley
¾ teaspoon sea salt
Dozen twists fresh ground pepper
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
While your food processor is running, drop in the cloves of garlic until finely minced. Add the walnuts, and half of the basil and parsley. Pulse a few times to make more space in the processor, then add the remaining basil and parsley, salt and pepper and half of the olive oil. Process till coarsely chopped. With the processor running, pour in the remaining olive oil. Add the cheese and mix just until combined.