Street pesto? My fail-proof recipe
I randomly found a delicious looking basil plant near my office! Is it kosher if I use it to make some pesto?
Pesto is one of my favorite things to make because it only takes 5 minutes, and it never fails to impress. In fact, it is by far my most popular Italian recipe — and I have many. The reason, I suspect, is that most people outside of Italy tend to only eat pre-made pesto from a jar, which is usually an overly oily dark green concoction. But fresh-made pesto is a whole other story. It’s bright green and tastes like summertime. For most people who have only had the store-bought variety, it’s a complete surprise.
The trick to making good pesto is counter-intuitive. It surprised even my Italian mother who is a very accomplished cook — and even she was so impressed that she asked me for my recipe. The tip I always give is this: go light on the olive oil and add some water instead. Unexpected, right? But the oil makes it heavy and greasy, while the water makes it fluffy and creamy.
Here’s how to make the best pesto you’ve ever had.
- Lots of fresh basil leaves, no stems, rinsed and patted dry (the photo above for example contains enough basil for 6-8 servings of pesto)
- A handful of pine nuts (1/2 cup)
- Lots of cheese (1/2 cup pecorino romano, 1/4 parmigiano reggiano — buy high quality cheese, not the over-processed Kraft variety)
- Just a little bit of extra virgin olive oil (1 tbsp at most — I typically do less)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Lots of freshly ground black pepper
- Cold tap water (about 3 tbsp, but it’s best to add this gradually at the end so you end up with the right amount)
- A pinch of salt if needed
Making pesto is very easy — it simply involves putting the ingredients in a blender and turning it on. The only challenge is over-filling blenders with short blades, which causes some of the ingredients to get stuck at the top where the blades can’t reach them. The good news is that the order in which everything goes in does not matter. I typically start with some leaves, blend, then add some pine nuts, cheese, garlic, and keep this going until I’ve used up all my ingredients.
Leave the water for last. Before adding the water, the pesto should be pretty thick and very green. Once you add the water and blend again, it should suddenly turn a creamy light green that is smooth and mixes easily into the pasta. Add the water gradually so you don’t run the risk of making watery pesto — which is actually very hard to do.
As a final step, taste and add salt if needed.
And don’t forget, making pesto is an art. It’s very hard screw up and you will likely never make the same pesto twice. Some people like their pesto very cheesy, some like it very nutty, some like it very green… Keep experimenting until you discover your own signature version.
Final note: Pesto is best eaten very fresh. It doesn’t take long to make so the best time to start blending is when you put the pasta into the boiling water (always salt the water generously — that’s how Italians do it). That way you’ll be done with the pesto just in time to mix it into your delicious steamy-hot pasta.