I am pretty happy with my pesto. Over a decade ago I decided to swear off using machines to make my pesto, and I have never looked back. And, in point of fact, I am not convinced, when you factor in cleaning food processors and the like, that I am actually doing more work making pesto by hand than I might be using a machine.
I am especially in love with pesto in late June and early July; we plant basil in pots, and it is officially warm enough that the basil grows aggressively, but we are not so early that the basil begins to get a harsh taste. While I may well contemplate putting some pesto away in a few weeks, my current mode of operating is to pick and pesto directly out of the garden.
Before I proceed any further, however, a word needs to be said about using pesto. My approach is that I will make small batches of pesto that will be consumed within a day or two. If you need to work ahead and make pesto that will last, you will need to modify my recipe. The key is that you will need to shock the basil to hold its color and its flavor. You will do this by taking the freshly picked basil and briefly (30 seconds) submerging it in boiling, salted water (about a tbsp per gallon of water). You will then quickly submerge the basil into a bath of ice-cold water to “shock” the basil. It will fix the color of the basil and will preserve a good deal of the basil flavor. I usually do not do this step, however, and as a result, you will not see it below.
1 bunch basil: I grow my own. If you cannot, I strongly encourage you to purchase hydroponically grown basil from your grocery store over and above cut basil stems.
Olive oil: I wish I could give you a quantity, but I simply add olive oil in order to adjust the texture of my work product. See the images below to get a sense of the texture of my work product.
Grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese: In general, one should purchase the most expensive Italian parmesan cheese one can possibly secure. I strongly recommend the “red cow” parmesan cheese if you can get it (yes, it should be eaten by itself, but for this purpose, it is important).
1-2 cloves garlic: My family loves garlic. Yours may not. Adjust accordingly.
Almonds: I am aware that my Italian friends are currently having a conniption at my recommendation that you use almonds here. “Do you not know,” they will query, “that only pine nuts will do?” They are, of course, technically correct. I have walked away from using pine nuts for a very particular reason–I cannot get fresh pine nuts here in the United States. The pine nuts I get are, without exception, rancid. I am a very strong believer that there are few things that are worse for you than rancid oils. Until Americans can get access to genuinely fresh pine nuts, I suggest that we use almonds.
White balsamic vinegar: Here I am running against tradition. In its most classic iteration, pesto does not involve an acid. Personally, however, I believe that the best pestos are ones that contain as many tastes as possible. Further, I do not want to shock my basil, and I want my pesto to keep its spring-green color. Accordingly, I feel like pestos should have at least some acid added in order to brighten the flavor of the pesto, as well as to act as a mild antioxidant which can preserve the color of the condiment. In the past, I tended to use lemon (zest and juice) to bring up the acid of the pesto. I enjoyed this version, and would have kept it, except my brother sent me a bottle of a very fine white balsamic vinegar, and I substituted it in an act of desperation (my lemons had gone off). White balsamic has a deliciously complex flavor, and I sprinkle it on my pesto to make it quite special.
Begin by cutting the base off of your garlic cloves, and splitting the cloves to peel them. Finely fan-slice the cloves, and finely mince them. Add the salt and almonds to the minced garlic, and chop until you have produced a fine nut-garlic-salt paste. Add olive oil and chop to incorporate. Add the grated parmesan cheese, and chop to incorporate. Adjust the quantity of olive oil so that all of the cheese is saturated with oil.
Pluck the basil leaves from the basil stems. Layering leaf on top of leaf, roll the leaves from each stem into a tight “cigar.” Using your chef’s knife, carefully cut each cigar into fine ribbons. When all of your basil leaves have been ribboned, put the ribbons on top of the nut paste, and begin to chop them in. Chop for about one minute, and add oil to keep the entire mixture moistened. When most of the leaves have been incorporated, taste the pesto paste you have been producing. Sprinkle white balsamic on top of the mound of paste, and chop to incorporate the acid. Taste again. Adjust until the basil flavor “pops” out from the cheese. Conversely, you may feel you need to grate additional parmesan cheese to bring up the earthy undertones of the cheese. Scrape the pesto into a bowl, leaving a substantial amount of pesto still smeared on the cutting board.
Toast a loaf of top quality bread, and slice several generous portions. Call your family down to the kitchen, and tell them you “couldn’t” get all of the pesto off of the cutting board. Allow them to use the bread to scrape the pesto off of the cutting board. It will be the best pesto you have ever had!