Felicity's perfect Pesto
Submitted - Ben
Ingredients2 tbsp pine nuts
Pinch of salt
250g fresh basil leaves (pick off as much of the stalk as you can, as this discolours easily)
25g Parmesan, grated
25g pecorino, grated
300ml extra virgin olive oil
Method1. Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan, and then allow to cool completely. Lightly crush in a pestle and mortar, along with a pinch of salt.
2. Add the basil leaves a few at a time, and working as quickly as possible, pound them into the mixture until you have a thickish paste.
3. Work in the cheese, and then gradually incorporate the oil, reserving a little for the top.
4. Spoon the pesto into a jar, and cover the top with oil. Refrigerate until use.
CommentsFrom sophisticated Italian saucepot to "middle-class ketchup" in a single generation, pesto has suffered more than most foodstuffs at the hands of the British mania for gastronomic appropriation. In the greedy heat of passion, we've spawned pesto crisps, pesto hummus (shudder) and even pesto oatcakes, but oddly enough, we eat very little of what might be described as "proper pesto". The long-life stuff is undoubtedly a useful thing to have in the cupboard for emergencies, but don't kid yourself that it's the authentic taste of the Cinque Terra.
To clarify, we're talking classical pesto, of the kind that was being made in north-west Italy and south-east France long before the Romans and their fermented fish sauce – not "Japanese pesto" or sun-dried tomato pesto, or anything involving rocket. The backbone of this is, of course, basil: Giorgio Locatelli recommends the smaller, sweeter leaves for the fullest flavour, and smoothest texture, but then he also has these leaves flown over specially from Prà, the epicentre of Ligurian pesto production, so he's what might be described as a details man. As long as the herb is fresh, and vibrant in colour, you'll probably be OK.
I'd laboured under the misapprehension that cheese, garlic and pine nuts were also non negotiable, but the nice man at Gastronomica in Borough Market sets me straight when I go to buy my cheese. "Every pesto is personal," he tells me. "As long as it has basil, cheese and olive oil, it is pesto."
This is confirmed by my first recipe, from the classic Italian cookbook, The Silver Spoon, which omits the garlic, calling instead for 25 basil leaves to be whizzed briefly in a food processor with 100ml extra virgin olive oil, 40g pine nuts and a pinch of salt, and then combined with 25g grated Parmesan and 25g grated pecorino. I find the basil quota slightly measly – the finished product is barely green, even fresh out of the machine, but it has a good, nutty flavour. I'd add more leaves (a great handful, rather than the prissily exact 25), but it's a good start.
Once upon a time, pesto was only made with Parmesan. That time was roughly 10 years ago, here in Britain, and was thanks to the fact that the equally popular (in Italy) pecorino has never been condemned for sale in malodorous little shakers in this country. Thankfully, things have moved on, and the hard, ewe's milk cheese is increasingly available – Giorgio Locatelli likes to use the Sardinian stuff; he feels the island has a "natural connection" with Liguria, where the basil is grown, and he finds it less salty than Parmesan. It's also, like for like, less expensive, although that is not something that probably troubles the Michelin-starred chef.
In his book, Made in Italy, Locatelli explains that there is "a great divide" between Parmesan and pecorino lovers, so his recipe specifies either cheese. Having made a pesto with equal quantities of both, I try out a Parmesan and a pecorino version, with Locatelli's 2 garlic cloves, 2 tbsp of toasted pine kernels, 250g basil leaves, 2 tbsp cheese, 300ml extra virgin olive oil, and a pinch of salt, and his method, of which more later. The Parmesan version is definitely saltier than the pecorino, which I feel gets slightly lost amongst the other ingredients. The delicate, lactic flavour of the sheep cheese goes beautifully with the basil though, so I decide to compromise with the half and half recommended by the Silver Spoon. What I don't like, however, is the garlic, which manages to overpower even the all-Parmesan version – usually I love the stuff, but here, it just seems like a bully. So, at the risk of being labelled a heretic, it's out.
I can't find any recipes for nut-free pestos, apart from on sites dedicated to the allergic, but I try one, in deference to my pesto counsellor at Gastronomica. The pine nuts obviously do a lot to thicken the mixture, and also add a rich sweetness which I miss in my very green, but rather thin pine-free sauce. Toasting them before use, as suggested by Locatelli, really helps to bring out their flavour.
Basil is a notoriously delicate herb, prone to wilting, or turning black, or simply losing its deliciously aromatic character, if roughly handled, so I'm surprised to see both the Silver Spoon and Marcus Wareing advocating the use of a food processor for pesto. Even Locatelli admits the possibility for large quantities, although, he says "if you can make pesto in a mortar, it is the most satisfying way".
Although unable to find, despite repeated experiments, a way to stop pesto discolouring over time, the food writer Harold McGee has concluded that it should be as coarse as possible, if it's to retain the flavour of the herb. I suspect the less even action of the pestle will help with this. Locatelli suggests crushing the garlic (if you're using it) with the salt, before adding the nuts, being careful not to "overwork" them – ie mash them into an oily powder. Then, as quickly as possible, add a few basil leaves at a time, then the cheese, and finally the oil – "the longer you work it, the darker it will look".
It's certainly harder graft than the Marcus Wareing method, which calls for the basil to be pulsed gently in the food processor along with the cheese, garlic and pine nuts "until roughly chopped", and then the oil to be worked in with the blender on pulse, but it seems to taste fresher, and more aromatic, and it's easier to control the texture by hand – I over-process one batch in the machine, and end up with a green slime.
I'm pretty pleased with my adjusted Locatelli recipe, without garlic, and with the mixture of cheeses – I add a little more of each to suit my taste, and reserve some of the olive oil to pour over the top, to seal the pesto; it should keep in the fridge for up to six months in this way.