The most commonly recognised type of pesto is pesto alla genovese, AKA basil pesto. A combination of basil, garlic, parmesan, black pepper, pine nuts and plenty of extra virgin olive oil. Despite this, the word pesto is a general use term for a pounded sauce and can be made with multiple different ingredients.
For today’s recipe we’ll be switching out the pine nuts because while they’re absolutely delicious, they cost a small fortune. I want to make a big batch of this so I wouldn’t like to spend too much on the ingredients and roasted almonds are delicious. Feel free to switch out for walnuts, roasted peanuts or your preferred nut. Alternatively, toasted breadcrumbs work just as well and will add a more neutrally flavoured body to your sauce, allowing the qualities of other ingredients to shine.
For our herbs, we’ll be using plenty of both basil and mint. Really most soft herbs would work fine in this style of sauce, feel free to combine things to your taste. A little bit of parsley for some grassy flavours, anise notes from some tarragon, the addition of some picked thyme leaves for savouriness or some citrusy notes if you’re partial to coriander.
I’ll be treating my herbs in two different ways to show you the difference. One batch will be produced with fresh leaves and in the second I’ll quickly blanch the leaves in boiling water and shock them in ice water to stop the cooking. In the latter, the flavour is slightly less intense but the colour becomes more saturated and brighter green. Our final break from tradition comes in the form of a good squeeze of lemon juice. To me, this lifts the sauce and makes it wonderfully bright. Don’t go overboard as we don’t want it to become sour.
A pestle and mortar will probably make the best pesto. Having said that, producing large quantities of pesto with a pestle and mortar can be a soul-crushing, drawn-out experience. If you’re producing a small batch at a time, go for the pestle and mortar, by all means. But for serious pesto production, you’re going to want to turn to your food processor or blender. I highly recommend a session of producing a big batch of pesto at least once a year. It can safely be stored in individual containers in the freezer so that all year round you can enjoy great quality pesto.
A plate of pasta with pesto is an easy meal to put together on those weeknights when you get home late from the office. If you freeze most of your batch, you have the option of slowly defrosting a portion in the fridge the night before. If you didn’t have enough foresight and want a quick meal, take the frozen sauce out of your fridge, break it into smaller pieces and fold it through your warm pasta along with a splash of pasta water until a beautiful sauce is formed. You can jazz things up a little bit further without much effort and produce something to impress your friends and family like in our recipe for paccheri with pesto, broccoli and sausage.
Pesto can also be used as a flavourful spread to a sandwich, as a way to add flavour to a grain or pasta salad or as a sauce for a piece of meat, fish or some vegetables.