This traditional basil pesto recipe is taken from the cookbook by Alice Waters, “Chez Panisse Vegetables.” I have included a method for mortar and pestle, and a compromise method using a food processor.
Place chopped garlic (chopping first helps) and pine nuts in a mortar and crush with a pestle until smooth like cream.
Add dry basil leaves and a pinch of coarse salt and grind until creamy again.
Grate or chop cheese, and add it with some of the olive oil. Continue to smash until smooth. Add remaining olive oil and a pinch of pepper.
Peel the garlic and place in a food processor. Pulse until finely minced. Add pine nuts and pulse until fine. Add dry basil leaves and pulse until uniformly chopped, but still a bit coarse.
Remove into a mortar or bowl. Add grated or finely chopped cheese, half the olive oil, and a pinch of salt, and pound with a pestle or wooden spoon. Add remaining olive oil and a pinch of black pepper if you like.
* You could also finish the entire basil pesto in your food processor.
Remember, you can always make the entire basil pesto in a food processor. It will be ready in minutes. To store the pesto, keep it in a jar or bowl. To keep the basil from browning, level out the surface and cover with a thin layer of olive oil. Alternately, press plastic wrap directly onto the pesto to keep oxygen from reaching it. Basil pesto will store safely in the fridge for up to 5 days. The thing you have to be careful about is the garlic. Keep it refrigerated when not in use.MAKE THIS VEGAN: There is another version of pesto called “pistou,” which is made from basil, olive oil, and garlic only.
THE BASIL:Basil pesto is traditionally made with genovese basil, which (fortunately) is the common Italian basil you find at most grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and gardens. It is the pungent, flavorful kind, with feathery soft leaves. A quick note on storing basil. Basil is a most tender plant, so you generally want to avoid putting it in the refrigerator. The best way to store basil is in a container of water, just like fresh cut flowers. It will keep fresh for days this way.Pesto can also be made with parsley leaves, spinach leaves, fresh oregano, arugula leaves, or any combinations of these.THE OLIVE OIL: I recommend using your best cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. The kind that you don’t cook with.THE CHEESE: Of course the cheese is very important. My recipe called for Parmigiano-Reggiano, a high quality, hard cheese that’s rich in savory umami flavor. Unless your parmesan has this exact name, it is not the right cheese.Parmigiano-Reggiano is usually sold in blocks, but you can also buy it grated. The only other recommended cheese is pecorino fiore sardo. Be careful not to pick up Pecorino Romano by accident, as this one’s off-the-charts salty, tangy taste will not work in basil pesto. THE PINE NUTS: If you really want a substitute, try raw walnuts instead. They are a similar consistency. Do not roast your nuts. You could also use almonds.THE SALT: I would recommend that you use Celtic Sea Salt or Maldon Flake Salt for this recipe. Both are harvested by hand from the living ocean in a traditional way, and both carry a briny flavor and an abundance of minerals. Flake salts are traditional, and such salts just feel right for basil pesto. A second choice would be a quality rock salt harvested from a primeval ocean, such as Himalayan Pink Salt, or many of the other quality sea salts on the market today.Whatever you do, do not use iodized table salt. This salt is chemically produced, and it will taint your precious pesto.