Pesto Revisited

I posted last year about making pesto in the food processor. I’m writing now to say that I’ve changed my ways.

I use a large mortar and pestle instead and make it by hand. I really enjoy slowing down for a few minutes and methodically grinding the ingredients together while I take in their fragrance. I feel like I appreciate the final product more.

My preference for ritual aside, pesto made by hand covers pasta much better and has a better blending of flavors. See Dan Gritzer’s post on Serious Eats for a side-by-side comparison. His was the first article I found when looking for a mortar and pestle pesto recipe after I bought a huge granite one to make guacamole in. Dan’s recipe is a great place to start experimenting from.

The exact recipe changes every time, but the method stays the same:

  1. Work the garlic and salt into a paste.
  2. Crush the nuts (pine nuts, walnuts, pistachios, or whatever you want to experiment with) and work them into the paste.
  3. Grind the basil against the edge of the mortar a handful at a time.
  4. Add the cheese and olive oil.

Here are some ideas for experimentation:

  • Try different varieties of garlic. I like Rocambole and Spanish Roja.
  • Try garlic scapes in late spring
  • Things you can substitute for the pine nuts: Walnuts, pistachios, or pumpkin seeds
  • Try other herbs with (or in place of) basil: Parsley, cilantro, arugula
  • Test out different hard cheeses in place of the Pecorino and Parmesan
  • Use different olive oils and note the flavors they add: Peppery, buttery, green

If you are in the market for a usable mortar and pestle (not one of those tchotchkes you see at Target), this is the 12lb behemoth I use.

Simple Pesto

September 30, 2016 Note: I’ve revisited my pesto-making style. I no longer make it this way. Check out how I make it now.

There are so many variations of pesto these days that it is almost a catch-all title for green sauces. I’m not against that, but it is hard to know what to expect when someone says pesto. I prefer the simplicity of the classic version, both in taste and ease of preparation.

Classic pesto is made with fresh basil, garlic, pinenuts, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil all ground together with a mortar and pestle.

I don’t have a mortar and pestle large enough to do this, so I use my awesome food processor to make it. You could also use a blender.

Simple Pesto

  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup raw pinenuts
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Put the fresh basil leaves, garlic, cheese, and pinenuts in the food processor, put on the top, and turn it on. Slowly pour the olive oil in through the drip hole while the food processor is running. Stop the processor and scrape down the sides with a spatula if needed. After the pesto looks like a paste, turn it off and add in the salt and pepper. Pulse it a few times to combine. If the pesto is too thick, add some more olive oil.

Pesto is best made fresh and consumed right away. If you do need to save it for a few days, put it in a jar and put a 1/4 inch of olive oil on top of it to protect it.

fresh basilBasil for pesto


How to use it

  • Toss with pasta and cherry tomatoes
  • Toss with zucchini noodles and grilled chicken (what Amanda and I did with the pictured pesto)
  • Spoon over fresh, crispy french fries
  • Spoon over soft scrambled eggs
  • Use in place of red sauce on pizza

How I used it:

pesto and zucchini noodlespesto-4