October 3, 2008

Pesto alla Genovese

There’s nothing more Genovese than pesto. This specialty from Liguria calls for sweet basil, spicy garlic, strong tasty pecorino cheese, nutty parmigiano cheese and crunchy pine nuts. Then, every ingredient is carefully pounded in a mortar (pestare in Italian means to pound) and emulsified with fruity olive oil. The Italian Consorzio del pesto Genovese is fighting to obtain the DOP label for pesto. They decree the rules for pesto Genovese, which include DOP Genovese basil (especially the one cultivated in Pra’ – a neighborhood in Genoa), Ligurian olive oil (olive oil from neighboring regions is also OK), DOP cheeses (Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano, and Pecorino Sardo, Romano, Toscano or Siciliano), and Mediterranean pine nuts. A pesto which doesn’t follow the rules exactly should not be referred to as pesto Genovese, but it could be called pesto alla Genovese (pesto in the style of Genoa).

Following the official traditional recipe, here’s my pesto alla Genovese


3 cups fresh small-leaved basil

3 Tbsp Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
3 Tbsp Pecorino Sardo cheese, grated

2 cloves of garlic 1 Tbsp pine nuts
½ - ¾ cup olive oil

Pinch of coarse salt

In a marble mortar, crush one garlic clove using a pestle. Add some coarse salt and continue crushing until creamy. Add about 1 handful of the basil, and pound the pesto with careful circular movements. Add the second clove of garlic, crush it, and then add another handful of the basil. Continue pounding and adding the basil by handfuls. When the basil gets a vivid green color, add the pine nuts. Once the pine nuts are incorporated into the pesto, add the grated cheeses and stir with a wooden spoon. Add the olive oil in a thin steady stream and continue stirring.

I know that in Liguria each
casalinga (housewife) has her own recipe of pesto. So the proportions of cheese, pine nuts and garlic vary from one house to another. The same thing happens with some of the techniques. However, based on the DOP standards, I’ll write some facts about pesto that will destroy common misleading conceptions:

1. Too much garlic is not OK. I’d say this is the most common error when people prepare their own pesto, and it’s also true for the pesto made by many store brands and Italian-American restaurants. Pesto is above all a basil-based sauce. Garlic should be there, but it shouldn’t be the protagonist of this story.
2. Other-herbs-pesto pesto-like sauces are not real pesto. Spinach pesto? Parsley pesto? Sun dried tomato pesto (very common nowadays in America)? None of them are known in Liguria, and none of them would be named pesto in Italy. I’m not saying they aren’t good, because they are. But they are not pesto, but rather pesto-like sauces.

3. Pesto does not call for toasted pine nuts. It’s true that by toasting the pine nuts you enhance the flavor: but this is exactly the problem. You don’t want to enhance this nutty flavor; you want to add texture and the delicate taste of untoasted pine nuts, which will soften and neutralize the strong taste of garlic.
4. Pesto is a cold sauce for hot or warm dishes. Pesto should always be served cold on hot dishes. The heat of the pasta or soup will activate the aromas present in the basil and cheese (and will partially melt the cheese, resulting in an even creamier texture). Traditional pesto can be strong, garlicky, oily and slightly bitter if it is eaten cold, and you don’t want that.
5. Lemon juice on pesto?! Sometimes people outside Italy do that, especially in a salad. This step is not necessary because pesto should be eaten warmed (not cooked), as stated before.

6. Not every basil is suitable for pesto. The traditional recipe calls for DOP Genovese Basil, which grows under certain conditions (of the soil, of the humidity that comes from the shore, and of the Mediterranean sun) and has particular chemical properties. You should avoid basil with leaves that are too big, but above all avoid mint-tasting basil!
7. Pesto is made combining grana cheese (like Parmigiano Reggiano) and pecorino (sheep) cheese. Some recipes of non-Italian chefs suggest using only Parmigiano Reggiano, as if it were the only Italian cheese. But people from Liguria, who were sailors, had commercial contacts with the island of Sardinia, so they brought Pecorino Sardo cheese from Sardinia to Genoa for centuries. So the addition of pecorino cheese has both historical and practical implications. The strong salty flavor of Pecorino Sardo will mix very well with the nutty flavor of Parmigiano Reggiano, resulting in a perfect pesto.


If you use your food processor, use just a few pulses because if you warm up the basil it will cause oxidation and the basil will taste bitter, and we don’t want that.

Posted by Daziano at 9:34 PM |  


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