pound and pulse

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I first ate pesto in St Albans. Years later, I would eat it in a rather sleek port side trattoria in Genova, the real deal, pesto alla Genovese, a bright green paste binding trofie pasta – a short twisted shape with tapered ends  – with just a little collapsing potato and fine green beans. But the first time had been when I was 14, in a town five miles nearer to London than my town, called St Albans. It was the first real date with the boy who was to become my second real boyfriend, who would later, if not break, offhandedly hurt my heart (the git.)

I can still remember him, wearing blue acrylic Adidas shorts, scraping the contents of a small jar into flat spaghetti called Lin-gwee-knee. The stuff coming out of the jar was darkish green and smelt like dried herbs, cheese and mothballs. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. ‘It’s pesto‘ he said.  I was given the job of mixing the pasta and pesto, which clumped into a large ball. It would be another 18 years until I learned the secret of pasta cooking water. Undeterred, we untangled the ball in two, then ate our supper listening to David Sandbourne’s 1980’s smooth sax. Even with the mustiness, I thought it was one of the best things I had ever eaten. As it got dark, I balanced on the cogs on the back of his BMX and he rode me up a very steep hill to the train station, a feat I read like tea leaves. It was meant to be. When we kissed goodbye, he tasted of pesto.

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Pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare that means to pound or crush, a job best done with a pestle in a mortar. The most famous of the pesto family, pesto alla Genovese, a distant manufactured cousin of that which I ate all those years ago in St Albans was – and occasionally still is – made with a bulbous wooden pestle, in a heavyweight marble mortar. Watching someone with experience and skill make pesto with a pestle is as wonderful as the final dish. To start, the garlic (with a pinch of salt) is pounded and crushed against the sides of the mortar. Once the garlic is disciplined, the basil leaves are added – ideally the small and tender leaved Genevese variety – and pounded into a bright green paste, at which point the pine nuts are added and pounded too. To finish mix of grated pecorino and parmesan cheese is then added bit by bit, each addition helped with a little extra virgin olive oil until the desired consistency is achieved. I was once told pesto should be corposo(have body) , that it shouldn’t correre (run) like a naughty child (mine), but sit like an obedient one (not my child). Later the addition of pasta cooking water will help loosen the pesto into an accommodating pasta-clinging consistency. I should stop here though, there are experts and consortia of pesto alla Genovese. I am simply an enthusiastic fan.

I have made pesto alla Genovese with a pestle and mortar, or rather Vincenzo and I did together, me instructing, him pounding. It was a laborious task , but a satisfying one and the pesto was fragrant with real texture. Laborious though. Then I broke my mortar*. These days I make it less laboriously and much faster with my only electric kitchen tool – a faithful immersion blender. Like so many Italian recipes, pesto alle Genovese is one that needs no innovation (garlic, basil, pine-nuts, grated hard cheese and extra virgin olive oil are a brilliant combination) but demands your imprint as you make it your own by making it again and again finding best method and proportions. I put the garlic, basil and pine nuts and just a dash of olive oil in a tin bowl and then with short pressing pulses reduce everything to a paste. I stir in the grated cheese and olive oil bit by bit, with a spoon, as opposed to more pulses, as I prefer the texture that gives. This is known as green sauce in our house and it is an absolute favorite. I make it most weeks. If we don’t have the ingredients, well, that brings us to other sorts of pesto.

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Pesto, a pounded sauce, can of course be made with many things. Pesto alla Genovese is a good template, establishing the garlic, herb (or leaf), nut, cheese, extra virgin olive oil formula which works so well. Once you have got the hang of this basic recipe, and found your preferred way of making it, be that pestle and mortar, immersion blender, food processor or magimix, you can improvise around this theme. Think of it as a set of pesto dance steps, that once mastered can be set to any ingredient tune.  I make parsley, walnut and parmesan pesto, sage, almond and pecorino pesto, mint,almond and salted ricotta pesto (to which I often add some finely chopped tomato making it rather like pesto alla Trapanese), rocket, pine nut and parmesan pesto, pea shoot, mint and almond pesto (to which I add peas and sometimes a blob of ricotta or thick greek yogurt).

As for qualities, an initial template is useful too, until you get the hang of things and pesto becomes a pretty relaxed affair for the eye and not the scales, that comfortable q.b. My original template of quantities for pesto alla Genovese came from the same person who so expertly pounded the ingredients by hand: 2 small cloves of garlic, a pinch of salt, 50 g basil leaves, 20 g pine nuts, 75 ml extra virgin olive oil, 30 g  pecorino cheese, 70 g parmesan cheese. These days I have a pretty good sense of these quantities and I keep them in mind whatever pesto I am making.

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The pot of pesto pictured in this post was a make-do pot. The the last two cloves of garlic (note to self – buy more garlic), basil and two neglected stalks of mint that might otherwise have just been binned, the only nuts I had in the house (almonds), parmesan alone as I had no pecorino.  I feel reassured by a pot of pesto in the fridge so if I can, I try to make extra. It need to be covered with a thin layer of olive oil to stop discoloring. Pesto also freezes well if you are lucky enough to have a lot of something along with the wherewithal to stock pile.

So how to serve it. Pasta is our preferred way to eat all incarnations of pesto. I was taught to put a tablespoon per person of pesto in a warm bowl while the pasta is cooking then scoop 3 – 4 tablespoons of starchy pasta cooking water into the bowl to loosen the pesto into a creamy sauce. You then lift the pasta onto the pesto and toss, adding a little more water to loosen things further: the pasta should be silky and willing to curl around a fork, not clump together. I like pasta with pesto just so. I also like vegetables in the mix. With this basil, mint and almond I added some fine green beans and to the pan along with the pasta.

Pesto – despite what Vincenzo might tell you – is not just for pasta though. I used most of the rest of the jar as a dressing for warm boiled potatoes and green beans, and the last spoonful in a sandwich with some ricotta and mizuna. On other occasions I have used pesto at the bottom of a goats cheese tart thing, as a dressing for grated courgette salad, stirred into warm lentils. However you choose to use your potful, keep in mind that David Sanborn makes for a good and naff supper soundtrack and a bike ride (balancing and hills optional) is nice after.

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basil, mint and almond pesto

makes that jar-full in the picture.

  • a big handful of mostly basil and just a few mint leaves (about 50 g)
  • salt (a pinch)
  •  1- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • a big handful of almonds (about 20 g)
  • extra virgin olive oil (about 75 ml)
  • parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated (about 75g)

Wash and dry the basil and mint leaves and put them in a deep bowl. Add 1 or 2 peeled cloves of garlic (you know best), a pinch of salt, and the peeled almonds. Pulse – cautiously to start –  with a stick blender until you have a rough paste. Add cheese bit by bit, with each addition adding some of the olive oil, stiring with spoon or pulsing with blender until you have a consistency and taste you like. This could of course be done with a pestle and mortar, or food processor.

Keep in a jar with layer of olive oil floating on the top to stop it discoloring.

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*I am now the happy owner of new pestle and mortar, a gift from my wonderful publisher Elizabeth on publication of the book. Did I mention I wrote a book? I will be pounding pesto with a pestle just as soon as I get back in my Roman kitchen. I am – despite this misleading post that has taken me a month to finish – still in England, which is lovely, but I miss Rome and my kitchen and (slightly blocked) kitchen sink and all that represents. Thank you again and again for all your support and cheering along, for buying the book and then sending me such generous messages, for cooking and then sending me pictures, really it fills me with joy. R

32 Comments

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32 responses to “pound and pulse

  1. I can’t help thinking you’re better off with Vincenzo than the BMX-riding ex but that did make me laugh (and transport me back to being about 14 again). Lovely pesto combos too, I may take a leaf or two out of your book and try some fresh variations depending on what’s growing in the garden. Good luck with the book – when’s it out?

  2. Moira

    Rachel, greetings from London. I have your lovely book, which I’m enjoying as much for your evocative stories of Roman life as for the recipes! That said, so far I’ve cooked my way through most of the veg section, now on to the pasta. We’ve loved your blog for a long time now, and cooked many dishes which have become firm favourites. Hope there will be more books in the future?
    Moira

    • rachel

      thank you so much Moira, I am so happy you are enjoying both reading and cooking and thanks too for taking the time to come and say so. Yes book two is already in the making, until then I hope to be here more, with warm wishes R

  3. Hi Rachel,
    I loved this post, so many things came to mind since Pesto brings up many memories! I’ve made pesto dozens of times, and with different ingredients including chickweed. It was nice to hear that it’s okay not to stick to the traditional basil,garlic,pine nut recipe! But I also love to mortar and pestle suggestion and may try that next time, also with the pasta water. Great post, thanks! Liane

  4. Love this so, so much. Also, the pesto recipe in the Silver Spoon uses green beans and potatoes, and a chef I wrote a book with was telling me of this pesto he used to love as a kid while living in Italy: and it had green beans and potatoes! So, it’s a real thing! And a delicious one as such.

  5. Rachel – congrats on the new mortar and pestle! You know I love mine. I picked up some garlic scapes at the farmers market the day after I got back from Italy, so scape pesto is on my agenda this week!

  6. victoria2nyc

    Hi, Rach. First off, your book is wonderful – even lovelier than I (your stalwart fan) imagined it would be. It is like a Jane Grigson book, one you can read cover-to-cover, rather than rooting around to look at recipes, because it’s so interesting and well-written. It’s also physically beautiful, and I have had to make a deal with myself not to be anxious knowing it is going to get as beaten up as my copy of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and my copy of The New Orleans Cookbook (which might actually qualify as a disgrace). I’ve already given one copy as a birthday present, and today I’m ordering another copy for Sharyn, my friend since I was ten, and she was nine.

    I have not had a love affair with pesto, but the other day I had some beautiful basil left over from a recipe that only needed three leaves. I couldn’t bring myself to let the gorgeous green stuff spoil, so I got out my pesto recipe, and made a batch of the traditional stuff with pine nuts in my food processor. I served it over penne rigate with green beans and potatoes, appropriately thinned with pasta water. It was delicious, as only something sublimely ineffable can be, and we decided it needed to go on the regular summer rotation. I don’t know if I liked it so much more than before because it was the first time I had made it with the beans and potatoes, but it hit the spot. Next time I will get out my Italian marble mortar and pound out your recipe by hand.

    Are the almonds raw and unblanced?

  7. Fab post as always Rachel. I make a ‘Sunday night pesto’ with any leftover herbs lurking in the bottom of the fridge. A local chef, James Burton, makes a wild garlic version which is absolutely delicious.

  8. As always our Rachel is on point. I share the words of Il Re di Pesto, Roberto Panizza who says using a marble mortar and wooden pestle is like being privilged to use of the Leonardo’s flying machines. You are taking past in history. I will sign off with my Genovese title – The Ambassador to London for Pesto alla Genovese al Mortaio – that’s what they call me at Pesto HQ.

    Roberto is of a view that only basil makes pesto – all others are salsa’s – he gets very expressive when he says that!

    Tonight at No 19 we too eat pesto with trofie under the trees.

  9. victoria2nyc

    Oh, gee. Sorry for my question. I see the almonds are blanched.

  10. The use of the stick blender might be game-changing (I get SO lazy about using the food processor because I hate to wash it. Very silly.). I also, as always, love your stories. When is your book released in the U.S.?!?!?

  11. Bevelie

    For lunch, we have just eaten Zuccine al tegame, courgettes cooked in olive oil and finished with basil. I picked it at random from your book, what a hit, it was delicious. Now the sun is shining fiercely so I shall pin my hopes on my basil blooming like mad so that I can try this pesto. It sounds so good. I love the inclusion of mint.

  12. laura

    First of all, LOVELY to have you back here!🙂
    Pesto was one of the only two ways my son would eat pasta growing up, so I got quite sick of it … but my beloved immersion blender, and a bit of a break, between then and now, have made me fall in love with it again … for pasta and a slew of other dishes. A dollop in minestrone is delish. And if I’m going to freeze some, I usually make it without the parmigiano … just add it later. It works very well.
    Ben tornata!

  13. I liked your biographical notes nearly as much as your recipe.

  14. My granddaughter, Rachel, and I are mgetting together today to do our cooking thing. We are baking an upside down orange cake.
    Perhaps pesto and pasta for dinner.

  15. I love this. My sister’s go-to dish for a long time if she ever had to cook was pasta with pesto – kinda like your young love!
    I love the sounds of a pea shoot, mint and almond pesto! If you leave out the cheese do you also leave out the oil?

  16. Eha

    Warm congratulations on your book which will be ordered as soon as I get ‘there’ . . . it does sound even more awesome than first imagined . . .and naturally on your new mortar and pestle . . . and thanks for a few more ideas on pesto use – the Genovese kind has been a favourite for decades but am not certain how ‘fond’ I am of all the other ‘kinds’ of pesto which have flooded the market place of late? Parsley pesto perhaps . . . sure, make the others, do not call them ‘pesto’ . . .rant over🙂 !

  17. What a great and funny post! And congratulations on your book!

  18. I’m a big garlic fan – Juan says I try to sneak garlic into everything savory I cook – and he’s right, about 200% of the time. Pesto was one of the first homemade sauces I’ve tried making on my own – back in the days when I was still trying to figure out the kitchen. It’s such an easy sauce to put together in five minutes, pumping with taste and vigor and color! Love reading about how you were introduced to pesto at 18, and how your and the ex said goodbye at the train station with a pesto-tainted kiss.

    p.s. congrats on your new pestle and mortar! I’ve never owned one (I like my electric blender – seems to do the job pretty well). But I suppose pesto pounded by hand must taste a lot more satisfying.

  19. Oh yes, I love pesto, both the classic versions and the what-can-I-do-with-a-few-broken-walnuts-and-a-handful-of-parsley type versions. But I never thought of using mint. Hmm. Pasta and mint, mint and pasta. Well, if you use it, it’s got to be good. I’ll try it. Soon.

  20. Anna

    In St Albans the place to look for reasonably good tasting Pesto, in a jar, is TK Maxx!
    I was amused to see that you buy Maldon salt Rachel, where as I buy my seasalt in Italy and bring it back to St Albans. As soon as I am back there from Umbria I will be buying your book…what an achievement. Congratulations

    (Oh and try explaining what a “git” is to an Italian….any offers? )

  21. Green sauce is a weekly (at least) mainstay in our house too. As a result the kids have become a parody of middle-classedness, announcing to well-intentioned friends who produce a jar that ‘it must be home-made’… (While I agree, I did die a little inside). Two additions to ours- a squeeze of lemon at the end draws out the basil I find. And instead of thinning it with water I add equal quantity of creme fraiche. Creamy green sauce! Heresy I know, please don’t tell any Italians.

  22. Pingback: Coriander and Cashew Nut Pesto | Mrs Portly's Kitchen

  23. I love homemade pesto… although I have a large mortor and pestle I always seem to go the stick blender option for convenience but there is something traditional and homey about using stone… might have to dust mine off🙂

    Also… just received your book in the mail and can’t stop flicking through it and going mmmm and yyuuummmmm and oooo I want to cook that and oooo look at this!! My bf just laughs at me but I can’t wait to start cooking from it… love the vegetable chapter!

  24. My husband is obsessed with pesto and this looks like an awesome recipe! I liked reading your story about your young boyfriend. Those memories are so special and it’s amazing how much our brains can associate foods with things like that. We are big time foodies, just starting our blog dedicated to our love of food! Would love you to check it out =)

  25. chefceaser

    Reblogged this on Chef Ceaser.

  26. Pingback: Build a Food Blog Worth Following | The Daily Post

  27. Simon Whitby

    Rachel – your recipe for greens and beans is amazing and a firm weekly favourite in our house. I buy a 250g bag of kale, am generous with the juice from a whole lemon, and serve with grilled ciabatta and garlic butter. Got your book for Christmas too.

    • rachel

      I love hearing that, it is one of my favorites too, with ciabatta and garlic butter sounds perfect. And I am so happy you have the book, i hope you enjoy reading, and cooking and eating, very best R

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