The basil in my garden is young and tender now, its leaves beckoning to be made into a pesto. Pesto, from the Italian pestare, to pound something, is a sauce made of ingredients that are crushed, traditionally with a hardwood pestle in an unpolished mortar of white Carrara marble.
Pesto genovese, the splendid Ligurian basil sauce, when made well, is probably one of the most-loved sauces of summer. But Italians pound out many more pestos than that. There are so many variations, some traditional, some not, like pistachio pesto, that for me has become a new rite of summer for anointing pasta or potato gnocchi, or stirring into minestrone.
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Listen to Julia della Croce discuss pistachio pesto and the global shortage of pine nuts on NPR.
While the method for making pesto is simple, it's a far cry from the careless way basil pesto is typically thrown together outside its Ligurian motherland. These pointers will improve any basil-based pesto, be it the Genoa original, or the lovely pistachio pesto recipe I offer in its place.
BASIL: Genovese basil is the only suitable variety for its fleshy leaves. Pick young leaves well before the plant bolts. Inspect bought basil carefully and reject wilted or discolored leaves. Remove any stems, using your hands, never a knife, which causes discoloration. Wash and pat dry without rubbing.
PISTACHIOS: Nut experts say that we are so inured to the flavor of rancid nuts, we may not know what fresh tastes like. Buy from a reliable source and use only raw, natural nuts, unsalted nuts.
GARLIC: Raw, aged garlic, what we typically can buy, is too aggressive for pesto. Unless you have fresh garlic, omit it, as the Genovese sometimes do.
OLIVE OIL: Because the oil is the foundation of the sauce, use high quality extra-virgin olive oil that is neither too fruity, nor too bitter.
CHEESE: You can combine Parmigiano-Reggiano and grana padano or use one alone, letting its characteristics shine through clearly. Buy it by the piece, never pre-grated. Grate just before using. Don't use a microplane as it shatters the characteristic crystals, destroying the cheeses' distinctive texture. Use a box grater, or better, grind it in a food processor.
THE "BROWN PESTO" PROBLEM: The best remedy, if unorthodox, is to blanch the whole leaves first in boiling, salted water for 30 seconds; drain immediately, then shock them in ice water. Pat dry and proceed. Surprisingly, blanching doesn't interfere with the basil's flavor or texture.
PASTA FOR PESTO: Unctuousness sauces like pesto need sturdy pasta to support their weight. Use fresh fettuccine or homemade potato gnocchi (avoid the leaden commercially produced specimens). Ideal dried shapes include fusilli, penne, bucatini, linguine, or spaghetti. Pasta cooking water is your best friend when tossing pasta with pesto. Set some aside before draining and stir a couple of tablespoons or more, as needed, into the pesto before tossing it with the pasta to loosen it up.
There is no true pesto genovese without the plump, aromatic pine nut that the Italians love. Alas, because of our warming planet, Pinus pinea, aka pinoli, pignoli or in Italian, the seed kernels of the Mediterranean stone pine have become as scarce and costly as caviar, with prices soaring over 1,000% in less than a decade.
“Italian pine nuts have become so expensive that the Italian grocers are keeping them under lock and key along with the truffles,” said Alessandro Bellini, an importer of high-quality Italian products at Viola Imports.
Beatrice Ughi at Gustiamo, which sells select artisanal foods online from small Italian producers and eagerly anticipates Tuscan pinoli every year (considered by the Genovese to be the most aromatic and creamy), confirmed the dire harvest. “I just talked to our maker of fresh pesto in Genova,” she said. “He says the situation is desperate.”
Pine trees need cold weather to incubate their seeds, which are cocooned in the trees’ cones. When the winters are too warm, the snowpack on the forest floor melts too soon, essentially robbing the trees of the natural drip system that keeps them continually moist. Not only are the conifers now dehydrated and distressed, the warmer climate invites a parasite that infests the cones, causing the trees to abort their offspring before the pine nuts can form.
According to Dayer LeBaron of wholesalepinenuts.com, whose family has harvested and sold nuts from the American piñon, a cousin of the Pinus pinea, since 1958, “Heat waves are coming to these mountains from Dakota to Iowa, and trees can’t handle it.”
Besides that, the U.S. Forest Service which controls the land has burned down huge swaths of pine forests to prevent fires from spreading. “Butchering big masses of the mountains isn’t the answer,” he said. (The hard-shelled piñons, which are eaten like nuts or ground into a coffee, are not interchangeable with pinoli for making pesto.)
Sandy Braverman, a second-generation nut seller at nuts.com, agrees that the scarcity coincides with warmer weather and droughts, tracing the problem to the 1960s.
“Pine nuts started to come in from China 20 years ago,” he said. With its boundless carpets of Siberian forests, it supplies 99% of the pine nuts on the world market. But even China is having terrible crops. “The Chinese are paying U.S. farmers in cash for piñon nuts and buying up their entire supply for their own consumption,” he said.
Expecting more from their pine nuts than the Asian species can deliver, Italians won’t buy them. Asked why, Ughi replied, “Because they’re tasteless.”
Pesto genovese and pesto alla genovese
For the record, the cooks of Genoa make a distinction between pesto genovese, the “pesto of Genova,” which is the real thing, and pesto alla genovese, “pesto in the style of Genoa,” the pretender. Founded in 2011, the Genovese Pesto Consortium (Consorzio del Pesto Genovese) based in Liguria codified the heritage recipe and “the rules for making it” (nevermind that in the Italian kitchen, there’s never only one way of making anything).
This is powerful stuff, but neither here nor there if you’re not in Genoa (Liguria), or you can’t get the ingredients, or they’re just too pricey. These days, even the Genovese must find substitutes for pinoli. Numerous Ligurian pesto producers I spoke with are using cashews instead. I’ve experimented as well.
An alternative to scarce pine nuts
In good time for the basil harvest, I have come up with another pesto using pistachios and almonds. It was inspired by the beguiling Sicilian pesto dei pistacchi tradizionale, but it wasn’t until pinoli became scarce that I began making a version of my own. Like the genuine pesto genovese, the true pistachio pesto of Sicily is not easily replicated outside its terroir.
Substituting California nuts produces a fine alternative, which my tribe loves as much as any pesto genovese that I’ve put in front of them. If you are inclined to replicate either of the original pestos, the revered Bronte pistachios from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, as well as rare Tuscan pine nuts are available from Gustiamo. Watching chefs from Genoa meticulously make true pesto genovese for a rapt audience at a worldwide summit of Italian chefs in 2011, was to understand that success in making any basil-based pesto lies in attention to a few fine points.
Makes about 1¼ cups, enough to generously coat 1 pound of pasta
Use this sumptuous pesto to coat pasta or stir it into a summer minestrone. For the soup, a small dollop blended into each bowlful goes a long way.
Mortar and pestle, or food processor: Pounding the basil with a pestle releases the juices in the leaves to be worked into the oil. In comparison, the blade action of a machine chops the leaves, sealing off their liquid and its aroma. The mortar and pestle method renders a pesto that is at once highly aromatic, creamy and pleasantly textured, delivering the characteristic mouth feel of each ingredient clearly without instantly altering the vivid color of the basil leaves. The method may be impractical for most modern cooks, but if you’re willing, give it a whirl. A food processor or blender can produce a perfectly delicious result as long as you don’t over-process the ingredients.
½ cup shelled, peeled, unsalted pistachios, plus a small handful for scattering
3 tablespoons lightly toasted, blanched almonds
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
½ cup packed fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley leaves
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
Freshly ground white or black pepper
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or grana padano cheese, plus extra for the table
Note: If the membrane of the pistachios don’t peel off easily after rubbing them with your fingers, blanch them in boiling water for about 1 minute. Drain, shock in cold water and dry the nuts in a paper towel. Toast them lightly and when they cool, peel off any skins that haven’t come off.
1. Food processor/blender method: Combine the pistachios, almonds, basil, parsley, olive oil, salt and pepper all at once. Process, pulsing every few seconds, to grind the ingredients to a grainy consistency. Take care not to over-grind to avoid a pasty consistency. The texture should be smooth and fluid, but not without a grainy texture. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl a few times during the processing. With the spatula, transfer the pesto to an ample serving bowl.* Beat in a couple of tablespoons of the pasta cooking water and add the pasta, tossing well. Add the grated cheese and toss some more. Serve at once. Pass more of the grated cheese at the table.
2. Mortar and pestle method: Use a good, sturdy mortar and pestle made of marble, large enough to hold all the ingredients. First crush the basil leaves, pistachios and almonds, salt and pepper, using a circular and steady motion to grind them. You will get a thick paste. Now add the olive oil gradually, first in a trickle, mixing the paste with a wooden spoon. Beat the mixture continually as you drizzle in the rest of the oil. With the spatula, transfer the pesto to an ample serving bowl.* Beat in a couple of tablespoons of the pasta cooking water and add the pasta, tossing well. Add the grated cheese and toss some more. Serve at once. Pass extra grated cheese at the table.
*Ahead of time: If you need to make the sauce in advance, at this point in the recipe, transfer the pesto to a small container, and press plastic wrap directly on the surface until you are ready to serve it. For best results, use within several hours of preparing, but it can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two days. (I am not a big fan of freezing pesto, but it will freeze acceptably for up to three months in a freezer-proof container.) Continue with the recipe as above.