Veal Vincenzo was a popular dish on the menu of a restaurant I operated in Philadelphia a number of years ago. When a customer called to ask if she could cook it at home by substituting vegetable oil for butter, eliminating the cream and changing the shallots to onions, I said, “Lady, you can do whatever you like, just don’t call it Veal Vincenzo.”
Fred Plotkin is like that about pesto, the sauce of basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and cheese from Italy’s Liguria region. “People think they can mash up anything and call it pesto. It’s not. It’s just a sauce,” says Plotkin, author of “Recipes from Paradise, Life and Food on the Italian Riviera.”
I think America has settled down a bit from a few decades ago when pesto was being made the traditional way (well, sort of) and applied to almost every food imaginable, to being made almost anyway but the traditional way and applied likewise. In the early days, pesto found its way into more dishes than kiwifruit. When we tired of pesto made the way Italians intended (more or less), American chefs began throwing more pesto change ups than a pitcher who had lost his fastball. Instead of basil, we got spinach, arugula, mint, oregano, Italian parsley—almost anything that was green and leafy.
When chefs ran out of green, they tried red. Like many Southwestern cooks, John Sedlar, author of “Modern Southwest Cuisine,” made a red chile pesto, though he did keep the olive oil and pine nuts. But pine nuts became walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and pistachios. Soon pesto lost all pretense of having any connection to the original. Even the doyen of Italian cuisine, Marcella Hazan (admittedly not a Ligurian), was making pesto with olives and capers in her book “Marcella’s Italian Kitchen.”
This is not to say the classic Ligurian pesto can only be made one way. “There is no single, definitive preparation for pesto. It varies a bit from town to town in Liguria, just like the dialect,” Plotkin writes in his book. “Even if you were to give two cooks equal amounts of basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and cheese from the same sources, the results will not be the same because of the hand and eye of the person who makes the pesto.”
Classic pesto, as with most Italian culinary creations, requires ingredients of impeccable quality, particularly the basil, olive and salt. Indeed, one can make a very good pesto with just these three. (Early versions of pesto did not contain nuts or cheese but they most likely did contain garlic.)
Liguria is known for pesto in large measure because its basil is superior to basil found elsewhere in Italy. “There is something about the proximity to the sea that promotes delicacy and flavor. It’s not too minty or oily,” Plotkin says. Even within Liguria, some areas, like the town of Prà, are considered to have higher quality basil than others.
The problem with American basil is that it is too strong. This becomes even more acute in summer when locally grown basil is available. To mitigate this, use only the small leaves from the plant, or grow your own, preferably from seeds labeled basilico Genovese.
Incidentally, Plotkin dispels the notion that only the people of Genoa (or Genova), Liguria’s largest city, know how to make pesto. Most references to Italian pesto call it pesto alla Genovese. But this name doesn’t connotation a way of making pesto; rather, it is a dish with pesto, trennette (similar to linguine), potatoes, and thin string beans.
The olive oil used for pesto, like the basil, requires a deft touch. Ligurian oil is fruity and light, a far cry from the throat catching Tuscan oils. Though Ligurian oils are becoming more available (look for brands such as Ranieri, Carli, and Roi), you can get by with a mild and fruity oil from Italy, Spain or California.
Because pesto is not a cooked sauce, the quality of the salt is also important. Table salt can be too harsh. Fine sea salt is preferred, but kosher salt will do in a pinch.
Speaking of harsh, go easy on the garlic. Italian garlic tends to be smaller and less pungent than the garlic most Americans use. Plotkin says Italian food got a reputation for being garlicky because Americans translated Italian recipes (not just pesto) without adjusting for the stronger garlic we have here.
Though pine nuts are preferred for their oiliness and sweetness, it is not uncommon to see walnuts, which give a drier, more tannic bite to the sauce. The classic pesto usually has two cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is rich and creamy, and the sharper Pecorino-Romano.
The method of preparing pesto is just as important as the ingredients. For years, like most Americans, I rejected using the traditional mortar and pestle in favor of a food processor or blender. (In Italian, pesto means a sauce pounded in a mortar.) The idea of pounding pesto in a marble bowl (the mortar) with a small wooden club (the pestle) seemed as antiquated as beating your dirty clothes with a rock on a riverbank. However, while I’m not ready to give up my washing machine, I have to tell you unequivocally that pesto made with a mortar and pestle is infinitely better than pesto made by machine.
“Esters (fragrant compounds) are brought out more by a mortar and pestle than the violent action of the blades of blender or food processor.” Plotkin says. (Cleaning the basil leaves with paper towel instead of immersing them in water also protects their valuable aroma and flavor.) Hand-made pesto integrates the ingredients better than a machine and produces a creamier sauce. And as corny as it sounds, there is a Zen-like satisfaction in making pesto with a rhythmic thump, thump, thump. Plotkin measures the correct capacity of the mortar by spreading the thumb and pinky of one hand across the top. If they don’t go over the outer rim of the bowl, it’s big enough to accommodate his hand for the constant pounding with the pestle.
I found Plotkin’s recipe one of the best I’ve ever used, though I did add more salt. Add a half dozen small basil leaves with stems and spines removed to the mortar with 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt. Mash with the pestle in a steady rhythm and continue to add more leaves (you’ll need 60 small or 30 large leaves in all). Halfway through, add 2 cloves of peeled garlic with the green hearts removed. When the garlic is almost incorporated, add 3 tablespoons of pine nuts. When the pine nuts are mashed, stir in 2 tablespoons each of grated Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano, then a quarter cup of olive oil.
I can eat pesto with almost any food and have been known to spread it on bagels. More conventional uses include putting it on grilled or baked vegetables, especially tomatoes, meat, fish, poultry, or bread. Pesto can even make canned minestrone seem special. Pasta, of course, is the ultimate mate for pesto. For a pound of pasta (enough for six people), mix 1/3 cup (or more) of the pasta cooking water with 3/4 to 1 cup of pesto to form a smooth sauce.
Despite their quest for purity, Ligurians do add things to pesto – like ricotta (good for lasagna recipes) and prescinseua (a kind of sour cream or yogurt) – to enrich it. Crème fraiche and softened butter are nice too. As for non-traditional pestos, I found that one made with kale, especially when blanched, makes a nice faux pesto topping (without cheese) for bruschetta. Spinach is a bit too mild, so go easy on the garlic. Arugula is the reverse. They’re all fun to make. Just don’t call them pesto.