THIS NO-COOK SAUCE DOES MORE THAN COAT PASTA
It’s hard to imagine American cooking before the pesto invasion of the 1970s. Today pesto is not just a pasta sauce. It’s a sandwich spread (way better than mayonnaise), pizza topping, garnish for soup, and sauce for fish, chicken, and steamed veggies. It seems like any plain dish benefits from a dollop of this potent green sauce. Unfortunately, most Americans are missing out on pesto’s true beauty—its bold, fresh flavors—because they are buying rather than making it. Yes, we’re talking about the pesto you buy in the refrigerated aisle, too.
You might think that making pesto is simply a matter of throwing basil, garlic, and cheese, along with nuts and olive oil, into a food processor, but you would be wrong. Pesto at its best is a smooth sauce infused with bright basil flavor and undertones of mellowed garlic and cheese. The nuts add richness and creaminess. The truth is that turning out a great pesto requires some finesse and technique and, yes, a recipe.
The biggest problem with most pesto recipes is an abundance of raw garlic flavor that bullies the basil, turning the sauce harsh and bitter. But if you don’t use enough garlic, the sauce lacks oomph.
The basil and nuts have the opposite problem. In Italy, you can smell good pesto before you taste it—and it’s the basil, not the garlic, that hits your nose first. Likewise, the flavor of the pine nuts should be present. In many store-bought versions there’s no hint of nuttiness.
Our recipe relies on some unusual techniques to dial back the garlic flavor and ramp up the basil and nuts. The rest is easy. Use good Parmesan and good olive oil. Remember, this is a no-cook sauce so you can taste every ingredient.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Toast the Garlic
Toasting is a guaranteed way to control the garlic flavor; you bring out its sweetness while tempering its bite. To do this, leave the peel on the garlic and cook the whole cloves in a dry skillet until spotty brown. Once the garlic cools, remove the skin to reveal cloves that have been lightly cooked. It’s like oven-roasted garlic, only faster. Chop the garlic before it goes into the food processor to ensure that there are no stray chunks in the finished sauce.
Toast the Nuts, Too
Toasting nuts brings out their aromatic oils, contributing to a stronger, more complex flavor and aroma. Do this while you wait for the toasted garlic to cool. Watch the pan closely—pine nuts will go from toasted to scorched rather quickly.
Bruise the Herbs
Bruising the basil (i.e., placing the leaves in a zipper-lock bag and beating them up with a meat pounder) releases the full range of herbal and anise flavor notes in a way that the chopping action of the food processor alone cannot accomplish.
Add Parsley to Keep the Pesto Green
A little parsley adds some complexity, but its main job is to keep pesto green and fresh-looking.
Use Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
In uncooked sauces like pesto, you can really taste the oil. Therefore, this isn’t the place to skimp. Use high-quality extra-virgin olive oil. There are a lot of strong flavors in pesto, so use a fruity oil rather than a peppery oil, if you have a choice.
Just because pesto is a raw sauce doesn’t mean you don’t have to handle the ingredients with care—nuts should be toasted and herbs should be bruised.
Classic Basil Pesto
MAKES ¾ CUP
- 8 minutes to toast garlic (also prep and bruise basil)
- 5 minutes to toast pine nuts (also grate cheese and chop garlic)
- 2 minutes to make sauce
- 8-inch skillet
- Zipper-lock bag for bruising herbs
- Food processor
Substitutions & Variations
- You can use an equal amount of toasted chopped almonds or walnuts, but the flavor and texture of the pesto will be different. Almonds are relatively sweet but are fairly hard, so they give the pesto a coarse, granular texture. Walnuts are softer but still fairly meaty in texture and flavor and become very creamy when processed.
- You can double or triple this recipe.
- For sharper flavor, substitute an equal amount of finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese for the Parmesan.
- A food processor does the best job of pureeing ingredients, especially in recipes without much liquid (like this one). A blender, however, will work, especially if you’re vigilant about scraping down the sides.
- To make a low-fat version of this sauce, ditch the nuts and then increase the amounts of garlic to four cloves, basil to 3 cups, and Parmesan to ½ cup and add 1 chopped shallot. Reduce the oil to 2 tablespoons and add ¼ cup part-skim ricotta cheese to guarantee the same emulsified texture as classic pesto.
When adding pesto to cooked pasta it is important to include 3 or 4 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water for proper consistency and even distribution. The hot cooking water also softens the flavors of the sauce and highlights the creaminess of the nuts. This recipe makes enough to sauce 1 pound of cooked pasta.
- 3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
- ¼ cup pine nuts
- 2 cups fresh basil leaves
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves (optional)
- 7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- ¼ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
- Toast garlic in 8-inch skillet over medium heat, shaking pan occasionally, until softened and spotty brown, about 8 minutes; when cool enough to handle, remove and discard skins and chop coarsely. While garlic cools, toast pine nuts in now-empty skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until golden and fragrant, 4 to 5 minutes.
- Place basil and parsley, if using, in 1-gallon zipper-lock bag. Pound bag with flat side of meat pounder or rolling pin until all leaves are bruised.
- Process oil, ½ teaspoon salt, garlic, pine nuts, and herbs in food processor until smooth, about 1 minute, scraping down bowl as needed. Transfer mixture to small bowl, stir in Parmesan, and season with salt and pepper to taste. (Pesto can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months. Press plastic wrap to surface or top with thin layer of oil.)
TOASTED NUT AND PARSLEY PESTO
Parsley makes a delicious substitute for basil, with pecans standing up to its heartier flavor better than pine nuts. You can substitute walnuts, blanched almonds, skinned hazelnuts, or any combination thereof for the pecans.
Substitute 1 cup pecans for pine nuts and ¼ cup fresh parsley leaves for basil, adding parsley directly to processor in step 3.
ARUGULA AND RICOTTA PESTO
Part-skim ricotta can be substituted here; do not use nonfat ricotta or the pesto will be dry and gummy.
Substitute 1 cup baby arugula and 1 cup fresh parsley leaves for basil and pound as directed in step 2. Reduce Parmesan to 2 tablespoons and stir in ⅓ cup whole-milk ricotta cheese.
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