An ode to pesto sauce

While on vacation at our lakehouse this week, I visited the farmers market in Grand Haven and found a vendor selling fresh basil by the pound. It was surprising to see because it’s a little early in the summer for basil, so I was inspired to buy some to make my favorite food in the world: pasta with homemade pesto sauce.

I first tried pesto when I was a senior at MSU, at a restaurant that had just opened called Pistachios. I don’t even know what made me order it in the first place – I was a fairly picky eater and had grown up in a small, rural town where such exotic foods did not exist. Plus it was GREEN – and up to that point in my sheltered life I had only ever had red sauce on pasta. But something made me decide to give it a try, and I’ve been addicted ever since.

The essential ingredients for homemade pesto sauce

I can’t remember where I found my first recipe for pesto, but I’ll never forget the one from the Silver Palate cookbook. For one thing it called for walnuts which struck me as strange, because I always thought pine nuts were a vital component of pesto. But what I remember most was the text that accompanied it: “But summer is too long, basil too plentiful and pesto too good to limit oneself to a single version.” I was flabbergasted. Summer is too long??? Said no one ever! And the idea of taking an absolutely perfect recipe and substituting the stellar ingredients with such ridiculous items as arugula? Not for this girl!

Today, of course, there are a million versions of pesto that call for all sorts of nontraditional ingredients. But for me, I’ve always stuck with the same mainstays: Fresh basil, a hard Italian cheese (more on that in a moment), good-quality olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, salt and pepper. Over the years, however, I have perfected that original recipe, or I should say tweaked it to align more with my taste buds.

On the cheese matter: For years I made pesto with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. But at a cooking seminar I attended a few years ago, it was mentioned that Pecorino Romano is superior for pesto sauce because of its saltiness. I gave it a try and I loved it, so I’ve stuck with that ever since.

I also always felt that the original recipe called for way too much olive oil – a full cup – so I’ve cut way back on that. It really doesn’t affect the taste, and obviously it makes for a much less oily sauce. I’ll go through the other tiny tweaks I make in the recipe below.

This looks like it could feed 12 people, but we never have trouble finishing it all at our house.

As far as the variety of pasta goes, I’ve always loved pesto with long, thin noodles such as thin spaghetti, angel hair or thin linguine. And I still wouldn’t turn it down if it were offered to me! But recently I tried pesto with gemelli and that’s been my preferred variety ever since. The tight little coils are ideal for the sauce to cling to and coat. Normally I like whole wheat pasta because it has a bit of nuttiness and also because it’s a bit healthier than white. But who are we kidding? Pesto is not a health food. So if you really want to go all out, by all means, use white pasta.

Both Pecorino and gemelli can be a little hard to find, at least in the Lansing area. We recently found whole wheat gemelli in a shop near Eastern Market in Detroit. I usually pick up Pecorino at our local Italian market, and Whole Foods also carries it. I’m sure it would be much easier to find both of these ingredients at groceries in cities larger than Lansing though.

Beautiful, lush basil straight from my garden.

Here’s the most important component of pesto sauce: the basil. It is the star, the headliner, the CEO of pesto. According to the Silver Palate, ideally your basil should come from Genoa in Northern Italy, “bathed by salty sea air as it grows.” I’m guessing that for most of us, that would be fairly unrealistic. But the next best thing is basil that’s grown in your own garden or yard. I usually plant at least 10 to 15 basil plants and am able to get a good five or six batches from those. Another good option is to buy basil from a grower at a farmers market. If you’re left with only the basil that comes in packages in the produce section of your grocery store, I’d say take a hard pass and wait until next summer. After all, part of what makes homemade pesto sauce so special is because summer is so SHORT and basil season is so fleeting. Unless, of course, you live in Northern Italy. Facing the sea.

The beginnings of a basil bounty.

Homemade pesto sauce with pasta:

  • 2 packed cups fresh basil leaves, stems removed
  • ½ cup good-quality olive oil
  • 2-4 cloves minced garlic, sautéed in olive oil and removed from the pan as soon as it becomes fragrant (IMPORTANT: if it burns, toss it out, wipe out the pan, and start again)
  • ½ – ¾ cup freshly coarsely grated Pecorino Romano cheese (can substitute with Parmesan, or use a mix of both), plus extra for passing
  • ¼ C pine nuts, lightly toasted, plus extra for topping
  • A pinch of crushed red pepper (optional but it gives the sauce a little kick)
  • Salt (pink sea salt is ideal) and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • A scant teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest, plus a quick squeeze of juice (this is also optional but I feel it adds a nice zip)
  • 1 pound of your favorite variety pasta
  • About a ½ cup of pasta water, taken from the pot of boiling pasta right before you drain it

Place the basil, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until chopped. Leave the motor running and slowly pour in the olive oil. Turn the motor off and add the cheese and lemon zest and process briefly. Season to taste with salt, pepper and red pepper.

Meanwhile, fill a large pot with water and plenty of kosher salt. Bring to boiling and add the pasta, cooking according to package instructions BUT remember to remove some of the water before draining! This helps thin the sauce a bit more (since we’ve cut back on the olive oil) and also helps bind the sauce to the pasta.

While the pasta is draining, pour a little of the reserved pasta water into the processor and give it another spin. If it still seems a bit thick, add a little more. Mix all the sauce into the cooked pasta and toss well to coat evenly. Divide it up among the plates and pass the reserved pine nuts and cheese. Die and go to heaven.

Makes a very generous four servings as a main dish, or six to eight if you’re serving it as a side.