The classic pesto, or pesto Genoese or Genovese, is a staple in our house. When these simple, real ingredients come together, they really elevate any dish to another level. You’ll look like a real rock star to your family and friends once you master this recipe. I’ll walk you through everything you need to know to have classic genovese pesto on hand all year round.
Before we dive into how to make it, let’s take a look at where it originates. Hailing from the Liguria region of Italy, located in the northwest of Italy on the Ligurian Sea, this mixture of basil, pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, olive oil, and salt is often referred to as Pesto Genovese a nod to it’s roots in Genoa, Italy.
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The history of pesto is long.
There is mention of a similar “paste” in writings dating back to the Middle Ages and at that time was used to preserve and conserve foods since the garlic was thought to be so beneficial. The first cookbook that gives a recipe for pesto is from 1863, written by Giovan Battista Ratto, in which she describes how to make it:
take a garlic clove, basil or marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch and parmigiano cheese, mixed with pine nuts and pressed in a mortar with some butter, until it becomes a paste. Melt it with abundant oil."-https://www.weareitaly.net/en/product/pesto-genovese/liguria/Pesto-Genovese.html
Things have changed a bit since then, but not much.
Pesto, in Italian, means "to pound".
It used to be done with a mortar and pestle, but since we like to keep things simple here, I’m going to teach you how I make pesto quickly using a high speed blender. You could just as easily use a food processor or any blender that you have available.
Making this by hand is tough and doesn’t yield the texture that I really like in pesto, and what I think works best in most pasta dishes.
So, let’s talk about the ingredients.
When you think of a classic pesto recipe, you likely think of Pesto Genovese with the smell of basil and garlic permeating the air. This happens to be my favorite type of pesto. You can use other herbs if you’d like (mint, parsley, spinach, cilantro, etc), but may have to play with the ratios of the other ingredients to get the flavor just right.
I personally stick with basil.
Luckily, I have a garden and can use fresh basil picked fresh from my backyard. I would recommend buying a small basil plant in the spring each year and using it for all your basil needs throughout the summer. If you can plant it outside, it’ll will grow big and produce a ton of leaves as long as you keep picking them. You can also leave it in a pot inside and use it the same way.
If you don’t have a green thumb, you can either buy packaged basil at the grocery or buy a basil plant (it’s sometimes less expensive to do this than buying the packaged kind) and use it all up in one go.
A third option for the basil in this recipe are the frozen basil cubes. I have successfully made pesto from these when I can’t get my hands on fresh basil. It worked out great!. These also happen to be quite cost effective.
Pine nuts are the next important ingredient in Pesto Genovese.
Pine nuts can be expensive, but are totally worth using. I buy all of my nuts at Trader Joes since they are less expensive than other stores near me. You can substitute other nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, or even sunflower seeds), but again, the classic recipe calls for pine nuts.
To extend the life of your open bag of pine nuts (since you won’t use them all up in one recipe), store them in the freezer. This helps the oils in the nuts from going rancid. In fact, store them in the freezer even before they are opened if you want. That’s what I do.
You want to use Parmigiano-Reggiano to stay true to the classic recipe.
If you have a chunk of Parmesan cheese in your fridge, you can definitely grate it fresh. I would use the fine side of your grater. If you want to keep things simple, you can buy grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Just don’t use the shelf stable green can of Parmesan for this. You want the real deal.
Garlic is also an important part of rounding out the flavors Pesto Genovese.
Two cloves will do the trick. I like to keep it simple and just pop two frozen cubes into the mix when I make it. I don’t always have heads of garlic around, but do keep my freezer stocked.
Lastly, you want to use good olive oil.
I like extra virgin olive oil and the one I use has a peppery finish. Use what you like. You want an olive oil that tastes good on its own for this recipe.
Actually making Pesto Genovese is simple.
Put all of the ingredients, with the exception of the oil and the cheese, into your blender (I used my Vitamix) and blend till well combined. Then, stream in the olive oil. When the consistency is perfect, you’ll blend in the cheese for just a few seconds. Voila, pesto!
How can you use this pesto?
- On pasta: cook pasta as you like, reserving about ½ cup cooking water before draining. Add pesto and a splash of pasta cooking water and stir together.
- On toast: Smear pesto on toast (crunch sourdough is what we like best) and top with a few extra pine nuts and a sprinkle of cheese
- For dipping: Put out with a loaf of crusty bread and big salad and call that dinner.
- As a flavor enhancer: Add a spoonful of pesto to any recipe you want to a give a little something extra. It can go into pasta, over salmon (I'll get you a recipe for pesto salmon soon), into soup. Whatever you like
Tips and tricks for freezing:
- Make a double batch, you’ll thank me
- Cover with plastic wrap before covering to keep from changing color
- Freeze in smallish portions. I like to freeze mine in 4oz mason jars. This is the perfect amount for when I make pasta with pesto for my family
- Defrost on counter at room temperature for about an hour before using
Love Basil? Looking for more ways to use what you've grown in your backyard? Check out these two ideas:
simple, classic pesto genovese
- 3 cups packed basil leaves washed and gently patted dry
- ¼ cup pine nuts
- ⅓ cup grated parmesan cheese
- ½ cup olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic or two frozen cubes
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper optional
- Put pine nuts, basil, garlic, salt and pepper into a high speed blender or food processor
- Blend on medium speed until ingredients are mostly combined
- With blender on low, slowly stream in olive oil
- Blend on medium to desired consistency (I like mine on the smoother side)
- Add Parmesan cheese to blender
- Blend no more than 10 seconds on low
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