Pestare

By the time this goes live, we will be in Italy enjoying a little dolce vita. So, here is one I prepared earlier….

And, since I had been in an Italian mindset, what could be more appropo than a post on pesto, that quintessential Italian sauce. Although, you will not find the recipe below a traditional pesto. It is my variation, making use of the large crops of basil (both large leafed and Greek columnar varieties) and spearmint in my Greek garden. 

Pestos (other than the standard Genoese basil-pine nut) can be made with many different fresh herbs – such as rocket (arugula), fennel fronds, mint, parsley – and many different nuts – such as cashew, walnut, almond, pistachio – in any combination that appeals to the taste buds. Then there are additions/alternatives like sun-dried tomatoes, pitted olives, artichoke hearts, alvocado, red pepper flakes…well, you get the picture. It is a flexible recipe and to some extent defined by the process of how it is made.

mortar_pestle_basil

Pestsre, is an Italian verb that means to pound or crush. It is generally acknowledged to be the origin of the word pesto. This should clue you in to exactly how pesto is made – no fast fix, but laborious crushing and grinding all of the ingredients with a pestle in a mortar. Definitely a workout for the those arm muscles.

A while ago, the blog Serious Eats posted a recipe for pesto that included experiments on food processor versus mortar and pestle production of pesto. Result: uniform texture, but grainy on the palate versus less uniform texture, but silky smooth in the mouth. Mortar and pestle got the thumbs up.

pesto_ground

Basil & Mint Pesto
Since mint is a strong herb, it can hold its own against the equally strong basil. The result is a flavourful combination – mainly basil, but with a zing. Almonds are fairly neutral in taste and a cheaper alternative to pine nuts. They are often used in similar Sicilian sauces. 

This makes enough for 500g of pasta.

  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Pinch of coarse sea salt
  • 50g basil (large leaf or in combination with other varieties)
  • 5g spearmint (the variety generally sold in grocery stores, also known as common garden mint)
  • 60ml (1/4 cup) extra virgin olive oil
  • 20g blanched almonds
  • 30g freshly grated Parmesan cheese

First clean and completely dry the basil and mint. Strip off the leaves to weigh. The leaves weigh very little, so many will be required to reach the amounts listed above.

Peel and roughly chop the garlic before putting it in the mortar with the sea salt. Begin pounding and crushing to produce a paste.

Add the basil and mint leaves a handful at a time, grinding them before adding more. Work this mixture until the leaves have broken down and mixed with the garlic paste. 

Roughly chop the almonds. Alternately add the oil and the chopped almonds, a little at a time, pounding the nuts to break them down. They require a little more pounding than softer pine nuts.

Lastly, once you have a fairly smooth sauce, add and mix in the grated cheese if you are going to use the sauce right away. If you wish to freeze the pesto in small amounts for future use, omit the cheese at this point. Cheese can be added when the pesto is defrosted and ready to use.

For those of you who like it hot: this pesto is good with the addition of a sprinkling of hot chilli flakes. 

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28 comments

  1. I am with you on the use of a mortar and pestle, not only a better texture, but the colour remains more vibrant.But I am also a purist when it comes to the word ‘pesto’ which to me, doesn’t simple mean any old paste coming from the verb ‘pestare’ but a particular sauce made in the Genovese way. As I mentioned in a previous post a long tome ago, you can call all the other things made from beetroot or sun dried tomatoes or artichokes and broad beans by a variety of English names, such as spread, or paste, or puree, or dip. I often get into ridiculous discussions about this as many Italians are happy to use the term pesto for their creative takes on this classic. I am a stickler for language so to me, a pesto is made from basil, pine nuts or walnuts, garlic, salt, pecorino or parmesan, and good oil.
    I bet your loving those hills. Jealous Debi.

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    • What about traditional Sicilian Trapanese pesto where they add almonds and tomatoes? I agree with you that the traditional basil-pine nut-pecorino/Parmesan pesto is the is what most people call generic pesto, but it really should be qualified as Genoese pesto. Yes, some of the additions are a bit odd and many of the results should be called paste or purée. But, I will stick with pesto for this one – not Genoese, but something similar. The mint does add a bit of zing. We are definitely enjoying the hills. Went for a hike on an old cobbled road last evening to view a medieval bridge out in the middle of nowhere. Lovely. Today is Lucca and the luminaria.

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    • Francesca, I get on my high horse over all these new fangled pizza toppings. A pizza does not have Cajun chicken on it nor does it have chickpeas and hommus. I do not care what anyone says. That is flat bread with an interesting topping.

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      • I agree. I also get fanatical about all the things people stick on top of a Bruschetta. Firstly, many food service people can’t pronounce the word, and then they go and stick a dog’s dinner on top of it. A lovely little seasonal, lightly dressed Italian starter is destroyed and the meaning lost. Why not just call it toast if you can’t pronounce the word, and don’t respect the concept.

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  2. Add me to the list of culinary pedants! I have recently returned to the mortar and pestle for pesto, the flavour has a purity that is destroyed by processing in a machine. Thanks for mentioning Pesto Trapanese, cherry tomatoes are cheap and extra sweet here right now, that’s tomorrow’s dinner sorted. Enjoy your time in bella Italia

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    • I love my mortar and pestle – hence its move to Athens with me. I was skeptical about the results of the experiment discussed in Serious Eats, but they are right, pounding makes a smoother (though less uniform) pesto. I do love a good Trapanese pesto, just like Montalbano.

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  3. I’ve never made pesto the “proper” way. I use a blender, because I make huge batches of it, without the cheese, and freeze in jars. It would take days for me to mortar and pestle my way through all my pesto ingredients!

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  4. Debi, one thing I learned the hard way is that reheated pesto is horrid. I made some for a dinner party years ago and had a lot left over so we had it for dinner the next two nights. I have never had it since. Can’t even bear the thought of it.

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  5. Pesto is great frozen in little ice block containers, then removed into a sealed bag in the freezer. Then plopped into winter soups. Cooked in this way, at the end of soup making, just adds a blast of summer. Whenever I have resorted to the food processor for pesto making, I end up with far more work trying to clean the green particles from the blades and container and lid. I also waste more water as this exercise requires it’s own sink of hot water. So much for time poor. One large bunch of basil gets beaten down in more ( stone and wipeable) mortar in no time at all. I also like to bang up my salad dressing ingredients this way too. In goes the garlic and salt, then some grainy mustard, then the oil, then the vinegar or lemon juice, tasting as I go. Long love the mortar and pestle.
    Oh Debi, I should add that when my Italian boys come to stay, they are amused at my use of the mortar and pestle- only their grandmothers use them. Their mother buys pesto at the local alimentari!

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    • I do the same thing with frozen pesto – in small bits, so they can come out and be popped into soups. Good tip about the salad dressing – will definitely give this a try as I usually just small the garlic and a bit of salt into paste before adding it to a jar with the other salad dressing ingredients for a good shake.
      I confess, being here for a short time and making a few meals in a tiny agrotorismo kitchen, I have also bought pesto from the shop – ‘fresh’ in the refrigerated section, not the bottled stuff. I’m not even sure the bottled green gunk is real pesto. Back to the mortar and pestle when I return to Greece.

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    • I was amazed at how the sunlight really picked up on the green – newly bashed, of course. More to do when we get back. We are definitely enjoying Italy and even the though of more lovely green pest to make isn’t enough to make me yearn to stay right were I am in Italy. Real life denial.

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