The word pesto comes from the Italian word pestare (“to pound/grind”). What that means is that it’s not pesto if you didn’t smash it like crazy with a mortar and pestle. Basil, like mint, becomes more fragrant and its flavor achieves greater depth when it has been squeezed or pounded, activating the oils in the leaves. Blenders and food processors only cut the leaves and fail to release the aromatic oils, leaving you with a sub-par pesto.
If you have a decently-sized mortar and pestle (about 2c), use that to achieve the best flavor (and to pound out frustration from a long day’s work). If not, then take the time to squeeze every leaf between your thumb and forefinger (or between your cutting board and a spoon), bruising it a bit before you stick it in the blender. You’ll be glad you did!
Try this recipe again in the early summer (when the basil is young and hasn’t flowered) for an even tastier dish.
This recipe serves two.
30 large or 60 small basil leaves
Put a pinch of salt in the mortar and add several leaves (5-7). Pound until the leaves begin to separate from the veins. Add another small handful of leaves and pound until these leaves begin to separate. Continue adding leaves slowly until all of the basil has been pounded together. At this point, the leaves will still be fairly chunky. You’ll take care of that in a minute.
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped (if you are sensitive to garlic, gently sauté it first)
Pound the garlic into the basil leaves until it is pulverized. This will also continue to pulverize the basil leaves.
1-2 Tbsp pine nuts
Carefully pound these into the basil mixture, making sure each nut is pulverized completely. As you do this, the basil should become completely pulverized. If not, keep pounding until it looks like pesto. Make sure to use the pestle to combine the ingredients.
2 Tbsp Parmesan cheese, finely grated (not the shaker can kind!)
2 Tbsp Romano cheese, finely grated
(there are even fancier cheeses that are appropriate for this recipe, but you’ll have to work to find them. It’s fine to use all Parmesan if that’s all you can find.)
Stir the cheese into the basil mixture.
3-5 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (the higher quality the better)
Stir into the mixture. Add enough that some oil begins to pool on top of the mixture if you let it sit for a minute.
Serve generously on top of pasta or use as sauce on pizzas. You can also spread this on crackers and then top them with slow-roasted tomatoes.