Pesto By Hand

The oldest—and still the best—way to make most people's favorite pasta sauce need not be the most laborious

Not owning a mortar, unfortunately, is no excuse. Any sturdy, narrow bowl will do. At Tosca I used the metal bowl of an electric mixer, and its convenient handle allowed me to angle the bowl as I worked. Simone lent me a wooden pestle he had bought for $2.00 in Genoa, and its convex bottom, as wide as a trumpet mute, was a revelation. I had remembered pounding as endless labor because of my mingy teardrop pestle—better suited to crushing a few peppercorns or a pill, as its pharmaceutical origins imply. A broad surface makes for quick, relatively painless pounding. (The blunt end of a wooden rolling pin—the kind without handles—will serve the same purpose, so long as you don't mind smelling garlic the next time you roll out pie crust.) Using the right pestle and just one shortcut, I reduced the total pounding time to about six minutes a batch.

The idea is to "melt" the leaves into the sauce, continually pressing them against the floor and walls of the bowl and against one another. A rough inner surface will help. Italian books counsel against any up-and-down motion, advocating a steady rotary movement, and the more dictatorial of them add that you should work in one direction only (as with cake batter "in my pre-mixer childhood," Barbara Kafka writes in her Soup, A Way of Life, to be published in November). When I watched Melly Solari—a woman legendary for her pesto, who with her husband, Franco, runs the restaurant Ca' Peo, in the Ligurian hill town of Leivi—make three consecutive batches of pesto by hand, she never lifted the pestle from the floor or sides of the mortar (well, hardly ever). Instead she kept it moving in a steady circular motion that was somewhere between firm pressing and light pounding. I was able to emulate her heavy pushing for the garlic-and-salt paste that is the first step, and then for the nuts, which quickly softened into a coarse mass. But I had to abandon nonviolent means when it came time to add the basil.

This is the time-consuming part, and where shortcuts come in. Solari added a few whole leaves at a time, and their tenderness and small size, not to mention her experience, made the work go fast. Big tough basil takes far more time, so I recommend first reducing the leaves to pieces as small as possible. The ideal way is to shred them by hand: metal seems to drain fragile leaves of their juices before they can release their aroma.

To make a cup of pesto, enough to serve six to eight people, smash and peel one large or two small cloves of garlic, removing any center shoots, which can make the sauce bitter. Pluck enough basil leaves less than an inch and a half long to make two packed cups, removing the central rib if it is big enough to feel with your fingertip; rinse well and dry between paper towels. Depending on your patience, either tear the leaves into fine strips or shred them in a food processor. Pound the garlic with a big pinch of coarse salt until it forms a smooth paste. Add three tablespoons of pine nuts, one tablespoon at a time, and pound until the pieces are very small and the mass sticks to the bottom of the pestle. This will take only two or three minutes. Start adding the shredded leaves about two tablespoons at a time, lifting the pestle as little as possible; keep it moving around the mortar, pushing and pressing, until you can hardly make out any individual pieces of basil.

Now add the grated cheeses, which will help to homogenize the paste. (Here you can switch to a spoon.) The total amount, I think, should be five tablespoons; the proportion will depend on the cheeses. If you have found a sweet sheep's-milk cheese, try three tablespoons of parmigiano-reggiano and two of pecorino; if the second cheese is very salty, change the amounts to four and one. Taste as you go. Too much cheese is the ruination of most of the recipes I encountered, and even Melly Solari spoiled one of her hand-pounded batches by overdoing the parmigiano. Finally, stir in three tablespoons of oil.

The finished sauce, a thick, rich paste, is best stored at room temperature. Made without cheese (which is added before serving), pesto can be stored in sterilized jars, covered with a generous film of oil to slow oxidation and the inevitable discoloration. Made with cheese, the sauce will last two or three days at room temperature and four to seven days in the refrigerator. Of course, you can freeze pesto, with or without cheese (better without), but I agree with Fred Plotkin that you do so at your own risk—the perfume of the basil never fully returns, and the balance of flavors shifts, with garlic becoming more pronounced as the basil's fragrance fades. Fresh basil is available year-round, after all, and you can make pesto whenever you want.

It would be a romantic fiction to claim that most Ligurian cooks make pesto by hand. "Useless to hide behind rhetoric and hypocrisy," Paolo Lingua writes in the 1989 Cucina dei Genovesi. "People use the blender." Not the processor, which never gets the consistency right and is disastrous with the nuts, although it is acceptable for shredding basil leaves. In the coastal town of Recco, which Plotkin considers to be arguably the epicenter of Ligurian cuisine, the cooks at Manuelina restaurant laughed when I asked to see the mortar in which they had prepared the pesto for our lunch. In one of those enviable Italian gestures they rolled their hands to indicate eternal and ridiculous effort and looked toward the blender. To make blender pesto, place all the ingredients except the cheese in the jar and pulse the machine, frequently stirring down the mixture—and you'll have to stop the machine often, to cram down all the leaves—until a paste forms. Stir in the cheese by hand, tasting the sauce as you add it.

Pesto is at its best gently but thoroughly heated, as by hot pasta or hot sliced boiled potatoes: the most typical Ligurian pesto-pasta dish uses flat trenette noodles, similar to linguine or fettucine, cooked with string beans and chunks of potatoes. Every Ligurian cook I observed diluted pesto with starchy cooking water, usually in a ratio of three parts pesto to one part water. This was not just Genoese parsimony at work. Pesto is concentrated, for easy storage, and meant to be diluted. The cooking water helps to bind the sauce to the pasta and helps the cheese to melt and evenly coat the strands. Pesto is often extended, and mellowed, with a sourish fresh white cheese. Called prescinsêua in Liguria, its closest equivalents are fromage blanc, quark, and plain yogurt left in a sieve to drain overnight; a tablespoon or two of yogurt can compensate for the harshness of overgrown basil, as Anna Del Conte points out. Ricotta can serve the same purpose. Ligurians sometimes add tomatoes to the basil and garlic. Plotkin calls this pesto corto, and his recipe mixes half a pound of seeded and diced plum tomatoes with one cup of pesto, or roughly one part sauce and one part diced tomato flesh.

My favorite of the pesto-pasta combinations we tasted in Liguria was pesto lasagne, a lush piling on of riches that really lets you taste the pesto. Plotkin gives two recipes, and pesto lasagne is certainly easier than most kinds. Simply spread pesto over leaves of boiled pasta, dotting layers with parmigiano-reggiano and ricotta or gorgonzola.

Pesto is not limited to saucing pasta, of course. Minestrone, a soup now universal but still associated with Genoa, is incomplete without a final addition of pesto—usually a pesto without nuts, like the pistou that the French stir into the eponymous thick bean-and-vegetable soup. One Ligurian book suggests the nice touch of letting minestrone sit, covered, for a half hour after adding the pesto.

Once you have pesto on hand, uses for it will keep suggesting themselves. The boiled potatoes and string beans that are adjuncts to pasta dishes sauced with pesto can be a dish on their own; in her book A Casa, Anna Del Conte dresses the two vegetables with a cheeseless pesto. Few summer dinners are better than swordfish straight from the grill given a light coating of pesto, or beefsteak tomatoes stuffed with rice mixed and topped with pesto and baked for an hour. Would any of these dishes taste as good if you were not first invigorated by pounding aromatic ingredients? I leave that decision to your forearm and your palate.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon About the Toys in Your Cereal Box

The story of an action figure and his reluctant sidekick, who trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In