Pesto is a sauce originating in Genoa in the Liguria region of northern Italy (pesto alla genovese). The name is the contracted past participle of the Genoese word pestâ (Italian: pestare) which means "to pound, to crush" in reference to the sauce's crushed herbs and garlic.
The ancient Romans ate a cheese spread called moretum which may sometimes have been made with basil. The herb likely originated in North Africa; however, it was first domesticated in India. Basil took the firmest root in the regions of Liguria, Italy and Provence, France. The Ligurians around Genoa took the dish and adapted it, using a combination of basil, crushed garlic, grated hard cheese (parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino, etc.), and pine nuts with a little olive oil to form pesto.
In French Provence the dish evolved into the modern pistou, a combination of basil, parsley, crushed garlic, and grated cheese (optional). However, pine nuts are not included. Pesto did not become popular in North America until the 1980s and 1990s.
Historically, pesto was prepared in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle. The basil leaves were washed, dried, placed in the mortar with garlic and coarse salt, and crushed to a creamy consistency. The pine nuts were added and crushed together with the other ingredients. When the nuts were well-incorporated into the "cream", grated cheese and then olive oil were added and mixed.
Because pesto is a generic term for anything which is made by pounding, there are various other pestos, some traditional, some modern. For this reason, the original (and most common) pesto is now called pesto alla genovese or pesto genovese (both forms are used in both English and Italian), in order to help differentiate the original basil based pesto from alternatives.
If you’re trying to eat healthy, lose weight, or just make something quick and tasty for dinner, pesto is your friend. For years, I’ve enjoyed pesto in pasta or on pizza in restaurants. And I always keep a few jars of pesto, from the specialty foods section of the supermarket, in my pantry. A small jar of pesto, added to a bowl of cooked whole wheat pasta, with coarsely ground pepper and freshly grated parmesan or Romano cheese, is one of the quickest, healthiest, tastiest dishes around. As well as one of the least expensive.
Here are some other ideas for incorporating pesto into your cuisine…
*To the pesto-pasta dish described above, add cooked green peas, asparagus, broccoli, or sautéed mushrooms. Or, throw a handful of fresh spinach leaves into the pasta while it’s cooking, but just before you drain it…long enough for the spinach to wilt.
*Spoon a little pesto over a grilled chicken breast, pork chop, or salmon fillet and serve on a bed of the pesto pasta.
*Cut a pita round into quarters and spread out the triangles on a baking sheet. Brush the tops with a thin layer of pesto and pop in the oven, just long enough to get the pita good and hot.
*Cut a baguette into slices and spread out on a baking sheet. Brush the tops with a thin layer of pesto, then sprinkle a scant teaspoon of chopped black olives and some feta cheese on each slice. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Pop into a pre-heated, 350 degree oven, for about five to seven minutes.
*Mix a little pesto with olive oil, minced garlic, and a few peppercorns to make a dipping sauce for a warm baguette or crusty, rustic Italian bread.
*Mix pesto with low fat mayonnaise, and a touch skim milk to thin it a bit, and spoon over poached salmon. It’s also really good on asparagus.
*Make an omelet. Before folding it over, spoon pesto on the partially cooked eggs, with a little salt and pepper and grated cheese of your choice.
*Spoon a little pesto onto a baked potato, brush on roasted corn on the cob, or stir a spoonful or two into cooked rice or couscous, instead of butter
*Halve a few cherry tomatoes, some olives, and cube up mozzarella cheese in approx. equal amounts. Mix up a little olive oil, a generous amount of pesto, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, some coarsely ground pepper, and a dash of salt. Pour over the tomatoes, olives and cheese. Marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours before serving,
Recently, I decided to go a step further, and make my own pesto. It’s super-easy, and adds extra zing to so many dishes. Want to try making your own? This is the recipe I use. It makes a cup of pesto, and if you store it in the fridge in an air-tight container, it will stay good for at least a week. Just cover it with a layer of olive oil (about 1/8“) Also, if I'm not going to use the whole batch immediately, I put the cheese in as I use it, rather than adding it all in at the beginning. Pesto can be stored in the freezer for up to three months. Just transfer to an air-tight container and drizzle remaining oil over the top. Add the cheese later, when pesto is thawed and ready to use.
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup pine nuts
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino cheese (see Cook's Note)
Combine the basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
If using immediately, add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese.
If freezing, transfer to an air-tight container and drizzle remaining oil over the top. Freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw and stir in cheese.
Buon appetito! C