Pesto Americano Will Have to Do

Don't mess with Mother Nature, even when she speaks Italian. A recent spate of hailstorms took its toll on Italy's basil crop, which are likely to have an impact on the availability and price of pesto, the beloved green sauce. One of the most hail-damaged areas is just west of Genoa, the Ligurian capital and birthplace of pesto alla Genovese.

Italians are a particular lot; pesto made outside of Genoa cannot be considered the real deal. Given the circumstances, do you suppose they'll let the pesto rules slide this season? Will basil from Sardinia be considered an acceptable substitute?

For those of you with more backyard basil than you know what to do with, count your leafy blessings and think of all those pesto-starved Italians. Perhaps an all-basil dinner party is in order, complete with a batch of stateside pesto. Your Italian guests, too distressed to notice the difference, will give you many mille grazie.

Basil Pesto
Adapted from "James McNair's Favorites" by James McNair

Word of advice: Taste all of your ingredients before making the pesto. Everything should taste good as you know it. If your oil or nuts are rancid, the pesto will taste "off."


2 cups basil leaves (Genovese basil is best bet)
¼ cup pine nuts (variation: walnuts, almonds)
1 tsp. garlic (at least 1 clove, maybe 2)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (variation: pecorino romano)
Coarse salt
Options: Substitute almonds or walnuts for pine nuts. Substitute parsley, mint and/or cilantro for basil

The traditional method is to use a mortar and pestle, but a food processor does the job just fine.
Combine basil, nuts, garlic and whiz. While machine is running, gradually whiz in the oil, until everything is well blended.
Transfer to a bowl and add cheese. Taste for salt. Can be used on the spot or refrigerated for a few days, covered. If you're going to freeze, omit cheese and add after the pesto thaws.
Makes about ¾ cup.

By Kim ODonnel |  August 23, 2006; 10:35 PM ET  | Category:  Seasonal Produce
Previous: I Dream of Kitchen Genie | Next: A Taste of Portland

Blogs That Reference This Entry

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Please email us to report offensive comments.

This recipe seems to call for too much pine nuts. Chef Paolo Monti has a the best recipe for pesto genovese I've come across:

Having traveled through Liguria and fallen in love with the real pesto, I can say that the green beans and the potato are wonderfully authentic touches.

Posted by: Croaker Norge | August 24, 2006 09:58 AM

Oh yeah Croaker, that pesto is similar to the one I tried in Manarola (Cinque terre), with regular pasta, a dish to die for. I can't wait to go back to that tiny restaurant.

Posted by: Manny | August 24, 2006 10:11 AM

In the winter, we use spinach when fresh basil is a little more difficult to come by. Mixed with a little basil it makes an earthier-tasting pesto which is not quite as delicate tasting as the basil-based one, but not bad in a pinch.

Posted by: pazzo di pesto | August 24, 2006 10:34 AM

I make pesto a lot. a LOT of pesto, a lot.

The main quibble I would have with your recipe is that you're omitting some pretty important stuff.

1) Wash your basil insanely well. A little bit of grit will ruin a lot of pesto. That means a big dunk in multiple (yes, multiple) full pots of water, so the grit can settle to the bottom of the pot. Don't pour out the water ahd basil; you'll just be reinserting the grit.

2) Dry it completely. I often spin it lightly and set it on a towel, spread in the sun. Add pasta water if you want o think it out, but use dry basil.

3) Prechop your garlic, unless you like having big hunks in your final pesto. The processor won't get them all.

4) Pine nuts are soft and tasty. DOn't add them at the beginning if you like to have them visible.

My technique is:
1) Add basil and oil to bowl of processor. As every batch of basil is slightly different, I like to add somewhat less oil than I think i'll need.

2) Turn on processor. Drizzle in additional oil if it won't "whirl" properly.

3) Taste basil/oil mix. Good? Weak? Powerful?

4) Add 1/2 of your pregrated parm. Add 1 clove (or more, to taste) chopped garlic. Zip some more.

5) Repeat, taste, etc.

6) I always add my pine nuts at the very end (so they retain some crunch) and the salt at the end as well (you can't judge salt until you see how much parmesan you put in). I'll zip the nuts and salt for about 5 seconds.

Posted by: Sailorman | August 24, 2006 11:05 AM

Sailorman, thanks for your detailed notes. Some would say to merely rub dirt off the basil leaves and not get them wet ever. I like how there are so many touches being posted. One other note: the recipe states a yield of 3/4 cup. Some would argue that is not very much considering all the basil being used. Put another way, it is enough for more than 1 pound of pasta, perhaps 2 pounds of pasta, so you'll have leftovers. Cheers.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | August 24, 2006 11:24 AM

Toast those nuts! Whether using pine nuts or another nut (being from the South, I've used pecans before with good results), I've found you get better flavor in the pesto if the nuts are toasted. Just be sure not to over brown the nuts and to cool thoroughly before adding them to the food processor.

Posted by: Angie | August 24, 2006 12:56 PM

Believe it or not, you can always freeze your pesto fixings until you are ready to use them. Just prepare the recipe (I use Craig Claiborne's recipe, sorry you guys he is the MAN) and half the olive oil. Do not add the garlic until you are ready to mix up a batch. I use 20 leaves with half a cup of Greek olive oil and then I put it into abandoned spice jars with lids and throw it in the freezer. I have enough pesto fixings to last the entire year. God bless Tom DeBaggio he still has it all going on basilwise! Even the Italians don't have as nice a Genoa as he and Fran do. Too bad we don't have it here in Israel.

Posted by: Rachel | August 24, 2006 02:42 PM

Freezing Pesto:

I like to make a big batch of pesto at the end of summer and freeze it for the winter months. The most convenient way I've found is to place compact scoops of pesto (use a melon baller or coffee scoop) on a tray and freeze solid. Then you can thrown them all in a freezer bag or container, but retain easy-to-thaw single-serving portions.

Some people use an ice cube tray, but I have found it difficult to removejust one block at a time.

Posted by: Mary | August 24, 2006 03:29 PM

Mario Batali says you can choose whether to toast the pine nuts -- toasted gives a deeper, nuttier flavor, but he prefers raw pinenuts so they don't overwhelm the pesto.

Regarding the 2 cups of basil, is that 2 cups packed? And just how "packed" should they be? I once found a basil recipe that said 2 cups packed and also included a weight measurement. I weighed my basil and realized that they meant PACKED, like brown sugar.

Posted by: Andrew in PDX | August 24, 2006 03:43 PM

Having used both methods many a time, I have to put a word in for the mortar & pestle. It DOES make a difference. Plus, you get to earn your dinner! Do try it - especially if you're making a smaller batch.

Two other thoughts: I usually add a bit of parsley for brightness and have taken to adding the cheese to the finished dish rather than the sauce itself. Heresy, I know, but it seems like I get better flavor with less cheese that way - seems to keep better, too.

Posted by: Frances | August 24, 2006 04:15 PM

I just wanted to say, I've used Kim's recipe for years - I think she first posted it in a long-ago chat - and my boyfriend says I make "the best pesto ever." Sometimes I toast the nuts, sometimes not, but it always gets a thumbs up!

Posted by: Anon | August 24, 2006 04:55 PM

I always freeze my pesto with the cheese in it, and I don't see that it suffers at all.

Posted by: Nabarda | August 24, 2006 05:44 PM

My fiancee found a simple wine sorbet recipe somewhere that uses a bit of basil. She made a batch to cope with the heat and an aggressive basil plant in our back yard.

It's quite yummy, and she posted it on my wine blog at

Posted by: Winesmith | August 24, 2006 05:47 PM

Another veg for pesto ... . Last summer I broke my ankle and my mother, knowing I love arugula, would get me some for me from the farmer's market to cheer me up.

You have to understand that my mother doesn't do things by half, so by get me 'some' I meant mounds. I had arugula coming out of my ears.

Arugula pesto to the rescue - and frozen it lasted me till this summer! It is on the tart side, so you migh want to take that into account. But I love it - very cleansing for the palette.

Posted by: Terrier | August 25, 2006 03:39 PM

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company