Welcome to the point of the summer when I don’t remember why I chose a career in cooking when I only want to eat about five things — tomatoes, melon, iced coffee and/or drinks, and popsicles — until the heat and humidity recede. The fifth, pasta with homemade basil pesto, is a craving that arrives like clockwork every July. It usually comes with very specific instructions, a list of everything I think tastes good with, near, or stirred into pesto pasta, things like white beans, grilled and marinated zucchini, halved cherry tomatoes, and bocconcini (or tinier!) mozzarella. And that’s it, that’s my whole menu for the rest of July. I’ll come back when I’m interesting again, okay?
… Fine, here’s the thing: I’ve never written up a recipe here for basil pesto with few bells or whistles because whenever I want to share a recipe for something really basic, I tend to talk myself out of it. Doesn’t the internet have enough pesto recipes, Deb? Why speak if you’re not adding something new to the conversation? This is my constant internal monologue. And yet! I do keep notes for how I make pesto on my computer to refer to every July because almost every recipe I find on front-page Google results is missing information I need, like a weight measurement for basil (good luck finding two cups of basil leaves that weigh the same or guessing how much of a larger plant you’d need for a couple cups of leaves), an accurate estimate of the amount of olive oil you’ll need, a reminder to please toast your pine nuts for maximum flavor, and, most importantly, the amount it makes and the amount of pasta the yield can generously coat. Yes, what I just described is called “a recipe.” And yes, this is a recipe blog. Maybe it’s time to finally close this loop.
A few more notes/tips:
– Pesto comes from the Italian word pestare, which means “to pound” or “to crush,” as pestos were traditionally made in a large mortar with a pestle. Strictly speaking, pesto is a generic term for anything that’s made by pounding or grinding, something I take great liberty with on SK (see: walnut pesto, almond pesto) but basil pesto, pesto alla genovese, is so popular, it’s usually what comes to mind when people think of pesto.
– Technique: I use a food processor but you can absolutely make it in a mortar and pestle, or with a mezzaluna, or just a regular knife. Just mince, mince, mince away at each stage instead of grinding.
– Ingredients: Pine nuts (pignoli) are the traditional nut here but I find that almonds also work well. Just toast them first: Spread evenly on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 5 to 8 minutes, tossing once or twice for even color. The cheese is usually Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano.
– Pasta shape: The most traditional shape for pesto is trofie, a short, thin, twisted pasta from Liguria made with semolina (hard wheat) flour. The shape is rolled by hand — no pasta machine required (hooray). I cannot find the photos anywhere now but I made it a few years ago. However, I never have great luck with hand-formed shapes because it’s hard to keep them all the same thickness, which leads to some pieces overcooking while others take forever to cook. I have faith you’ll do better; here’s a good lead.
– Make sure your basil leaves are dry, or the mixture gets kind of mucky looking (yes, I’m a professional writer, why do you ask?).
– Don’t skip the salt. Absolutely skip the lemon. I always say that I think we often add salt when we’d be better off adding acidity to foods. Here, I feel the opposite; skip the lemon, which is not traditional and discolors the basil. Season it well.
– Always leave some cheese on the side, because you’ll want extra to finish your dish with.
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