Pesto alla Genovese

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From the Liguria region of Italy
 
Once upon a time, pesto was invariably made by hand using a mortar and pestle. The name implies the act of using the pestle. This is still the classic and preferred method, but modern times have even reached certain kitchens in Liguria. It is now a given that much of the pesto you taste is made in a blender. Handmade pesto is indeed better because the ingredients have been worked less, but blender pesto is fine as long as you use the finest, freshest ingredients available. This pesto may be tossed with spaghetti, maccheroni, linguine, or the classic Ligurian pastas, trofie or trenette.

For 4 servings of pasta:

  • 1 large bunch of fresh basil leaves
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 teaspoon pine nuts
  • 5 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Ligurian)
  • 3/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
Do not wash the basil. Simply wipe the leaves carefully with paper towels or a clean cloth to remove any dirt. Discard the stems.

Classic method:
 
Place a few leaves of basil in a mortar. Add a clove of garlic and crush the leaves and garlic against the sides of the mortar using the pestle. Add a few more leaves of basil and another garlic clove, and repeat the process. Once you have crushed all of the basil and garlic, add the pine nuts. Crush until the basil, garlic, and pine nuts are well blended. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and combine with the ingredients in the mortar. Then add the Pecorino Romano a little at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon. Then stir in some more oil, a tablespoon at a time. Your goal is to have a thick, creamy sauce. If you choose not to use all of the oil, that is fine.

Blender Method:
 
Place all of the ingredients in a blender. Blend at high speed for 1 minute. Then lift the lid carefully, and scrape the sides of the blender cup using a rubber spatula. Check the consistency of the pesto, which should be thick and creamy. Blend for a few more seconds if you think the pesto should be a bit thinner, but don't overdo it. A few cooks, after making blender pesto, add a touch of heavy cream to the sauce, but this is not essential.

Cook's note:
 
In Genova it is traditional to boil a peeled potato along with the pasta. This potato is then chopped into chunks and tossed with the pesto and pasta. The genovesi often add a few slivers of cooked string beans as well. Some cooks add a bit of hot water from the pasta pot to dilute the pesto just before it is tossed with the noodles.
 
If you are making minestrone or another vegetable soup, stir a tablespoon of pesto into each portion for an exquisite treat.

Wine: Pigato, Vermentino, or Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

Recipe by Fred Plotkin, author of Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, Kyle Books 2010.

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