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Artisanal Pesto with Pasta

Pesto pasta on plate

A handful of simple, fresh ingredients made greater than the sum of their parts.

Using a mortar and pestle, a few nuts, some cheese, garlic, herbs and a bit of oil you end up with a deliciously rich, pungent sauce.

Pesto is wonderful over fresh mozzarella and juicy, slices of heirloom tomato. Mix it into a bechamel sauce to add complexity to mac & cheese or lasagne. Try a drizzle over warm, grilled steaks or bread for a pop of flavor.

Add pesto, some cherry tomatoes and arugula to the base of chicken salad for an Italian twist. Toss some pesto with lightly cooked Zoodles (zucchini noodles) for a great vegetarian meal or side dish. My absolute, all time, favorite way to enjoy pesto is mixed into a warm bowl of pasta.

Yes, it’s probably easier to buy pre-made pesto from the market but making pesto at home is quick and easy once you get the hang of it and trust me, store bought pesto can’t hold a candle to the results of the homemade version.

Making pesto at home from scratch is what makes this “artisanal” pesto.

Artisanal (adjective): 1. Relating to or characteristic of an artisan. 2. Pertaining to or noting a high-quality or distinctive product made in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods.

With mortar and pestle in hand, you my friend, are the artisan that’s going to put the “artisanal” into this pesto recipe.

The Pasta

In my opinion, pesto is one of the few sauces that tastes equally good on fresh pasta, dried pasta and all manner of shapes and strands.

If you’re pinched for time, use a good quality dried pasta. You can have dinner on the table in half an hour or less. If you want to go uber gourmand, try your hand at making fresh pasta. Once you get the hang of making fresh pasta, it’s a simple process and super gratifying.

The pasta water should be lightly salted. Don’t go over board. Pesto is usually on the salty side due to the amount and type of cheese used. Normal pasta recipes call for salting the cooking water until it tastes like seawater. In this recipe you don’t want to be that extreme. You want to be able to taste the salt but only slightly.

Another thing I like to do with my pasta water is take advantage of the cooking process, it has the ability to impart flavor into the pasta. For instance, in this recipe I use a squeeze or two of lemon in the sauce leaving the majority of the lemon unused. Instead of throwing it away, I add the remaining juice to the cooking water at the same time that I add the salt, right when the water comes to a rolling boil. Adding flavor to the cooking water is a very subtle way to season the pasta itself.

Basil and Arugula

The herb of choice for many pesto makers is Genovese basil. I like to add a little complexity to the large quantity of basil by using another vegetal flavor profile. One of my favorite additions is baby arugula. Other options include but are mot limited to, parsley, nettles, watercress, mint.

Both the basil and arugula should be fresh, young, organic and in good condition. Be sure to wash and dry before use and discard any leaves that look past their prime.

Garlic

This recipe calls for two large cloves of garlic but if you’re sensitive to garlic, reduce the amount to one clove. If you’re a garlic lover, feel free to add whatever amount you please, just be sure to remember to add a little at a time. You can always add more but you can’t take it out

When making pesto, use fresh, young garlic. Older garlic bulbs have a stronger, spicier flavor. The cloves of older bulbs will actually begin to sprout. You can see the green sprout protruding from one end of the garlic. Sometimes even garlic that doesn’t appear to have sprouted, in fact has. If you cut open a clove and there is any sign of green in the middle, the clove has begun to sprout. This sprout has a bitter acrid flavor. Using a pairing knife, careful remove the sprout and use the remaining part of the clove.

In heartier sauces you’re probably fine to use old bulbs and leave in the sprout but in a fresh, uncooked, nuanced sauce like pesto you do not want any bitter or acrid flavors. The ingredients in pesto are assertive as is.

Cheese

You can make pesto using either Parmesan or Pecorino. If you opt to use Pecorino be sure to use Pecorino Sardo, not the more familiar Pecorino Romano. Pecorino Sardo is less salty and has a richer flavor that balances well with the other flavors in the pesto.

Nuts

Most traditionally, the nuts used in pesto are pine nuts. If you don’t have them, you can substitute other nuts like walnuts or marcona almonds.

If you’re allergic to nuts or just don’t like their flavor, you can replace them with some bread crumbs. Use 1/3 -1/2 cup of bread crumbs from a stale loaf of good bread.

I recommend using pine nuts until you get familiar with pesto and feel comfortable enough with flavor profiles to branch out. Another recommendation is to toast your nuts before use in the sauce. I’m sure some folks disagree with this method but I think the hint of toasted flavor is a welcome addition.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Buy the highest quality extra virgin olive oil you can afford. The extra virgin olive oil is the tie that binds in this recipe. If the extra virgin olive oil is poor quality or rancid your pesto will be subpar.

A few tips about buying good quality extra virgin olive oil.

  1. If at all possible, taste it before you buy it.
  2. Buy olive oil in dark-colored bottles. If the bottle is light in color but is packed in a box, that’s fine as well. Light and heat degrade olive oil quickly.
  3. Check the “best by” date. Bottles with a “harvest date” or “pressed” dates are usually higher quality and you run less chance of a counterfeit product. Keep in mind, olive oil degrades with time and exposure so the fresher the better. For this reason, I don’t recommend that you buy extra virgin olive oil in bulk unless you plan to use it quickly.
  4. Check the bottle for “PDO” or “PGI” certifications as these indicate that a given bottle of oil was made in a specific region using traditional production method.

Salt and Lemon Juice

Pesto really only needs a few pinches of salt and a squeeze or two of lemon. Both help to balance and brighten the flavor of the sauce.

The salt should be of good quality, coarse sea salt. I like to use Himalayan or Grey sea salt.

The lemon should be fresh and organic if possible.

Why Use a Mortar and Pestle?

Mortar and Pestle are traditional tools used to grind spices and make a wide variety of marinades and sauces such as pesto. Using a mortar and pestle takes a little time and elbow grease but you get a big return on investment. The resulting pesto is divine.

All in all, it takes approximately 5-10 minutes to make enough pesto for 1-2 lbs of pasta. There is something rustic, liberating, and beautiful about creating food without modern-day mechanics especially when the results are superior.

You can certainly use a blender or a food processor to make pesto. The sauce will be good but not great. The warmth and the cutting action of the blades can homogenize the ingredients into more of a liquid and loose both taste and structure in the process.

I’m not trying to knock you if you choose this method, I just want to warn you that this is not the road to pesto glory.

Using a mortar and pestle allows you to mash and crush ingredients to varying sizes and gently release their essential oils. The texture of the resulting pesto is velvety, creamy and something between a paste and a sauce. This method of making pesto boasts bigger, brighter flavor that clings perfectly to the pasta.

If you’re not convinced, I urge you to compare the two methods for making pesto. I’m confident you’ll be a convert.

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