Every summer, I gather together garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and lemon juice, anticipating the armload of basil I will find at our local Farmer’s Market. I make a huge batch of classic pesto, which we freeze to eat throughout the year. It’s a tradition I look forward to. There is nothing better than the heady, green smell of the basil-based sauce. We eat it often in the summer months, but I feel comforted to have some squirreled away for those moments I need to be reminded that winter does not last forever. Summer’s coming.
Pesto comes from the Italian word pestare, which means, “to pound.” I understand that many Europeans would never make a pesto in a blender or a food processor, but I do. If you can’t stand the thought of that, by all means, get out your mortar and pestle and follow along. I’ll be waiting on the veranda with my glass of wine and my plate of pesto pasta while you’re pounding.
I have not added measurements for any of the ingredients because how much you use depends on what you use. Start with the least amount of oil you think you will need for processing, and correct it later. Generally, I use the following ratio of ingredients:
- ¼ cup of olive oil
- juice of one small lemon
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1 cup of grated hard cheese
- 1 cup ground nuts (if these are eliminated your sauce is now Provinçal and called a pistou)
- 4 cups of fresh, unprocessed greens
- salt and pepper to taste
Anything green, from the garden or fresh from the market, can make a pesto! It’s fun to experiment and hard to make a mistake if you keep your core ingredients in mind. Try a combination of any of the following ingredients.
Greens and herbs to try alone or in combination:
- Beet greens
Note: If using kale or beet greens, blanch them in boiling water for about 5 minutes before processing them, as they tend to be a little less tender when they are raw.
- Toasted pine nuts
How to Make Pesto
Long ago, before I had a family to feed, I put all my ingredients in a blender, turned it on, and called it done, and you can do that, but I don’t recommend it. I burned out a few blenders this way, or at the very least, used too much oil to get the dry ingredients to blend. I learned to process the ingredients separately and mix them together in a bowl. It makes a much better sauce. Nowadays I use a food processor, but the way in which I work with my ingredients has not changed. There is no need to clean your equipment when you switch ingredients; it all ends up together, anyway.
If you are using nuts, process them first, as finely as possible. Remove them from your blender and place in a large bowl.
Place the peeled garlic cloves in the bottom of the processor. This is important. I have found that if I do not put the garlic right next to the blades, I can end up with chunks of it in my pesto, which can be unpleasant. Add the greens, lemon juice, and olive oil on top of the garlic, being careful not to overload your machine. Process until everything is minced finely and starting to look like a paste. Remove this mixture to the bowl with the nuts.
If you have more greens to process because you didn’t want to overfill your machine the first time—I always do—put the greens into your processor with a little bit more olive oil and process them into a paste. Put this in the bowl with the other ingredients.
If you use your processor to grate the cheese, do that last. If the cheese is already grated, you can add it directly to the bowl with your other ingredients.
Now, mix together all of the ingredients in your bowl. If they are drier than you would like, add a bit more olive oil. I always use as little olive oil as I can get away with when I’m processing. It’s harder to correct a sauce that’s too thin than one that’s too thick.
Taste your mixture. If it needs more lemon juice, add it. I always add salt and pepper last, stirring well, until the pesto is seasoned to my taste.
How To Serve Your Pesto
Cook your favorite pasta according to the package directions.
Important: Before you drain it, reserve about 1 cup of the pasta water out of the pot. The pasta water will keep the pasta from sticking together and help the sauce adhere to the pasta. Trust me. It works.
Drain the remaining water from the pasta and return the pasta to the pot. Add the hot, reserved pasta water back to the pasta, add your pesto, and mix everything together thoroughly. Remove your pesto pasta to a serving bowl and serve.
Lettuce Pesto Recipe
This is what I used from what we had in our greenhouse last night. (And, by the way, the kids loved it!)
4 cups well-washed lettuce
½ cup flat leaf parsley, tough stems removed
2 sprigs of fresh taragon
2 sprigs of fresh dill
juice of one small lemon
3 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ cup olive oil
1 cup hazelnuts
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
Prepare as described above and enjoy!