Here is how I make pesto:
- 120g (about 4 oz) fresh basil leaves
- 3-4 cloves garlic
- 70ml (about 1/4 c) pine nuts
- 50gm freshly grated parmesan
- 160ml (about 3/4 c) extra virgin olive oil
- Pound garlic and pine nuts in a mortar/pestle.
- Add the basil and pound. Pound until you’re sick of pounding. Take a break. Pound some more.
- Add the cheese.
- Add the olive oil until it’s creamy. You probably won’t need it all.
Fabulously simple, right? A lot of work, given all the pounding, but not complicated. Yet, an astonishing number of times people have told me that they can’t do it. Three times, people have become belligerent—I mean really belligerent—accusing me of giving them a fake recipe. One time, I thought it might come to blows.
I was fascinated by this. No other recipe or cooking experience has led to this level of anger. So I investigated.
How to Screw Up Pesto
First, there’s the obvious. Use fresh basil. Rinse it off, but make sure it’s dry before pounding. You don’t want watery pesto. Similarly, use fresh parmesan cheese and grate it when you’re going to use it. Green cylinders will not give good results. Oh, and most “extra virgin” olive oil isn’t “extra virgin.” Some isn’t even olive oil.
But the belligerent cooks were using decent ingredients. They all, however, used a food processor instead of a mortar and pestle. To a person, they insisted that it couldn’t possibly make any difference at all:
Cook: “You gave me a bogus recipe. It doesn’t taste right.”
Me: “Did you follow the recipe?”
Cook: “Exactly. To the letter. And I used the best ingredients I could get.”
Me: “How long did you pound it?”
Cook: “I used a food processor.”
Me: “The recipe doesn’t call for a food processor, it says to pound in a mortar and pestle. That’s how I made the stuff you liked.”
Cook: “That can’t possibly make a difference. You gave me a bad recipe.”
Me: “No, you didn’t follow the recipe I gave you.”
Cook: “Yes I did! I just used a food processor instead of a mortar and pestle. That can’t possibly make a difference.”
Me: “So you didn’t follow the recipe, then you didn’t like the result. You did like the result when I made it following the recipe. But you insist that your changing the recipe has nothing to do with the inferior result?”
Cook: “You’re an asshole and a liar.”
Sigh. Now, if you want to make pesto with a food processor, and you like the result, more power to you. I have no objection. I won’t even argue that it technically isn’t pesto (which is Italian for “pound,” not “chop”)—it could be another case of Caltech pizza. It could be fundamentally superior to any pesto I have ever made.
But please, please don’t modify my recipe and then blame me if you don’t like the result.
One last thing. My older son has become a big fan of pesto and we are eating it a lot more often. The pounding does get tedious. What I’m doing these days is blasting the basil through the food processor for a few moments to get it started, then adding the chopped basil to the pounded pignolas and garlic and pounding it again until my arm hurts. I think it tastes about the same.