Yes, yes, pesto is sort of everywhere, but making it yourself – now that is a whole different thing.
Just to straighten things out, I’m taking about Pesto alla Genovese. This is the familiar green stuff, with pine nuts and cheese. I’m not a massive fan of the other types (most often, red pesto), so usually give them a miss. But I have seen a reference to a sauce made in Germany using wild garlic – I can see how that would work. Similar colour, but with a mild yet robust garlic flavour. Definitely one for the “to try” list.
Over the years, I’ve had great pesto and I’ve had lousy pesto. I adore the fresh stuff on plain pasta or bread (yum) and once, in a mousse with Thai vegetable chips and satay sauce (meh…not so good). For the past couple of days, I’ve had a bunch of basil sitting chirpily in my kitchen. With the window open in the increasingly warm weather, it has been fluttering its large, glossy leaves every time there was a breath of wind. Today, I caught a whiff of the aromatic, faintly aniseed basil leaves, and I decided it would make great pesto. I’ve read tales of Italian grandmothers who lovingly use a marble mortar and pestle to grind basil leaves, one at a time, to make a silky-smooth pesto sauce. However, as a modern chef, I throw everything into a mixer. Just basil, salt, pepper, Parmesan, pine nuts, olive oil and a little garlic, and after a moment or two, a rich emerald-green paste was mine.
I had this just with pasta, and my word – it was great. Much fresher than anything I’ve bought for a while, and as the leaves were not completely pulverised, the pasta was flecked with dark green while the oil took on a brilliant lighter hue. The garlic was also a good addition – I haven’t used it in the past, but it really works wonders and takes the heaviness off the final pesto.
Now I just have to work out how to grow a basil plant that does not mind being picked one in a while…
For the pesto (enough for past for four):
• 30g basil, leaves only
• 30g pine nuts, very lightly toasted
• 30g Parmesan cheese, grated
• 1/2 clove garlic, minced
• 150ml olive oil (but use more or less, according to taste)
Put everything except the oil in a mixer and combine. Once roughly chopped, add the oil and work into a smooth paste.
Worth making? Fresh pesto is so much more vibrant – colour, aroma, flavour – than anything you buy. Really worth having a go at, and makes simple pasta with pesto into a real treat. The trick is to make sure that you don’t overdo the nuts or cheese, so that they balance the basil and don’t overpower it.