Pesto. The word conjures up the 1980s, when seemingly every Italian restaurant in the United States discovered that there was more to dressing pasta than “meat or marinara?” Like so many foodie obsessions, it started out being made the traditional way, only to be subsumed by America's tireless quest for shortcuts–in this case, the food processor.
It's August, prime season for basil, and this means it's time to take pesto back from the lazy.
Most recipes that plead for the use of the mortar and pestle whine about the loss of tradition and attempt to evoke images of Milanese grandmothers looking on stoically as their techniques are lost, or sound superior as they discuss the vast chasm between American pesto and Italian pesto.
That's all very tempting, but there are concrete reasons why a mortar and pestle are necessary to good pesto. A good pesto stands up on meat or fish and clings to pasta, yet it has a smooth consistency; there are no chunks in good pesto. It's very easy to tell when pesto has been made with a machine, because it will puddle at the bottom of a bowl of pasta and will run off the sides of a piece of, say, grilled salmon (untraditional but excellent). In addition, while a Robot-Coupe will chop the cheese and nuts well enough, most home food processors will leave unappealing wads in the finished product.
Enough lecturing. Here's how to make a luscious pesto. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, use a dish and utensil with some texture; a wooden salad bowl or even a scrupulously clean terra cotta planter, and the handle of a big wooden spoon will take longer, but will get the same good result. Once you master the technique, feel free to mess with the proportions. Feel free to substitute the nuts or the leaves, even–though if you add chile peppers and use parsley instead of basil, you'll be headed down the road to chimichurri.
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, peeled
1 Tbsp. pine nuts, toasted (or not, up to you)
1 Tbsp. grated Parmigiano cheese, the real kind–not the green can
1 large handful sweet basil leaves–a little stem and the flowers are OK too
About 3-4 Tbsp. Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, just a little of each
1. Put the garlic and a pinch of salt in the mortar and start grinding. The salt will help the garlic turn into a paste, which is what you want. You can stab the garlic to break it up, then grind while pushing.
2. Add the pine nuts and a pinch of pepper and grind them into the garlic paste until it's nearly smooth.
3. Add the basil, a few leaves at a time. It will look like it isn't going anywhere, then all of a sudden it'll incorporate. Don't grind it too much and don't obsess over little fibers.
4. Add the cheese, grinding it together; it shouldn't take very long to incorporate.
5. Add the olive oil, a glug at a time. Don't be too exact. It will start to glisten and then, on the third or fourth glug, you'll start to see yellow seeping out. Stop adding olive oil at this point.
6. Taste the pesto; add salt or pepper if needed.
7. Put the pesto in a jar, a cup, or a small glass bowl and press plastic wrap directly on top of it, then wrap the top with plastic like normal. Refrigerate if it's going to sit out for more than a couple of hours, but bring it back to room temperature before using.