Bye-bye summer – hello, basil pesto

Published 11:55 pm Friday, October 24, 2008

The end of summer means the end of my basil! How I will miss it until next summer. I have tried saving a pot through the winter but usually with limited success. The best thing to do for the winter months is to make pesto.

Pesto is a sauce that originated in the city of Genoa, in the Liguria region of northern Italy. The name is the contracted past participle of pest (to pound, to crush), from the Latin root of the word pestle, in reference to the crushed herbs and garlic in the sauce.

Pesto is made with basil, salt, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts (often toasted), and a grated hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano (but which may be Grana Padano, Pecorino Sardo, or Pecorino Romano). The ancient Romans ate a cheese spread called moretum which may sometimes have been made with basil. The herb likely first came from North Africa. In 1944 the New York Times mentioned an imported canned pesto paste. In 1946 Sunset Magazine carried its first pesto recipe. However, pesto sauce did not become popular in North America until the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Pesto was and is sometimes still prepared in a marble mortar with pestle. First the basil leaves are washed and dried and then put in the mortar together with garlic and some coarse crystals of sea salt, then crushed to a creamy consistency. Pine nuts are added and crushed together. When the pine nuts are well incorporated in the “cream,” the two grated cheeses Parmigiano and Pecorino, plus olive oil can be added and stirred together with a wooden spoon. The sauce is now ready. In a tight jar, or simply in an air-tight plastic container, pesto can last in the refrigerator up to a week. Pesto can also be frozen, if needed.

Pesto is commonly used on pasta. It is sometimes used in minestrone as well. It is very important never to cook pesto because basil when heated gets bitter. It can also be served on sliced beef, tomatoes, and boiled potatoes.

Basil has been used as a treatment for coughs, skin diseases, and intestinal problems. The seed still finds use as a bulk-forming laxative and diuretic. However, the composition of basil is affected not only by the chemotypes in its many different varieties, but even by influences such as the time to day of harvest, which may explain contradictory and inconsistent reports that a too-generous helping of pesto may cause a temporary but distressing intestinal reaction in some people.

Basic Basil Pesto

(Quick version in the Processor)

Makes about 1 cup

2 cups packed fresh basil leaves (2-3 bunches)

¼ cup walnut pieces (or pine nuts) toasted

¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons water

1 large garlic clove, quartered

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper


Place basil, walnuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano, oil, water, garlic, salt and pepper in a food processor; pulse a few times, then process until fairly smooth, or to the desired consistency, scraping down the sides occasionally.

Tip: To toast the walnuts or the pine nuts: Spread on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and lightly browned, 7-9 minutes.

Linguine with Pesto, Beans and Potatoes

This is the true pasta with pesto from the beautiful Ligurian coast of Italy on the border of France. The potatoes serve to soak up the driblets of oil from the pesto.

6 new potatoes or small red ones

1 cup trimmed young Green Beans or Haricots Verts

1 pound linguine


Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving

Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan, add salted water to cover generously, and cook until the potatoes are tender; drain. Cut the potatoes in half, and set aside.

Meanwhile, cook the beans in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until tender. Drain the beans, plunge into the ice bath to cool, and then drain again.

Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 2 tablespoons of salt. Cook the linguine until al dente. Drain.

Pour the pasta into a warmed bowl; add the beans, potatoes, and pesto. Toss but do not return to the heat. Serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Pesto: Makes one cup

3 tablespoons Pine nuts

2 cups fresh basil

1 clove garlic, peeled

Pinch of salt

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Combine the pine nuts, basil, garlic, and salt in a large stone mortar and grind to form a paste. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, beating all the while with a wooden spoon. Beat until the mixture forms a thick paste.

Patricia Wells is one of my favorite cookbook writers and in her cookbook, Trattoria, she gives a recipe for a red pesto sauce. This combination of sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, and fresh herbs is dynamite. Give this a try if you don’t have any basil or even if you do.

Red Pesto Sauce

10 sun-dried tomatoes (can use those in oil also)

1 fresh garlic clove, minced

½ teaspoon crushed red peppers (hot pepper flakes), or to taste

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

About 20 salt-cured black olives, pitted

2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves

In the bowl of a food processor, combine all the ingredients and process until the sauce is lightly emulsified but still quite coarse and almost chunky. (You do not want a smooth sauce.) The sauce can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. If you do so, first cover the pesto with a film of olive oil.

The seed catalogues will be coming this winter so if you don’t grow basil already pick out some seed to try. They start easily indoors and transplant easily.