July 24, 2004

mortar and pestoA million years ago, when Meg in Paris and I were roomies in a coachhouse on Seminary Avenue in Chicago, we had a concrete planter out front. At this point in time my culinary capabilities extended to boiling water. And I didn't always know what to use that water for - my girlfriend at the time laughed for seven minutes solid when I asked how to cook frozen ravioli. Boiling just didn't seem right at the time.

Now, I mention the planter because in that planter, Meg in Paris (who was then just Meg in Chicago, planning to go to Paris possibly) planted a variety of basils. We had lemon basil, purple basil, Italian basil, you name it. At the end of the season, Meg made a big batch of pesto, which I instantly fell in love with. Thanks to my limited skills, I assumed she'd used some sort of voodoo to make the basil in our garden turn into pesto in my belly.

Until tonight, I'd never tried making pesto. When the farmer's market my wife and I went to this morning had basil on sale, I knew my pesto-making-virginity was soon to end. And it did, deliciously.

Here's the recipe I used, cobbled together from a couple of cookbook recipes and an Internet formula or two:


3 cups basil leaves, cleaned very well, spun dry
3 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/2 cup grated Parmagiano Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
½ cup olive oil
Kosher Salt

Since it was my first time, I fel it was important to do things the old fashioned way, in a mortar with a pestle. I have a mortar and pestle thanks to the old girlfriend mentioned above.

Start by combining the garlic and salt. Mash with mortar and work the salt in to the garlic. Add the pinenuts. Mash and press in a circular motion with the pestle until the garlic, salt, and nuts are all well incorporated.

Add the basil leaves a bunch at a time. You can shred the leaves ahead of time to be more thorough, but I took them whole. Continue working the basil into the mix until you have a mostly uniform paste with no big leaves left. At this point, add the cheeses and mix throughly. I had to transfer the mix to a bowl to do this becasue my mortar had no room. Use a fork to mix the cheeses into the paste. Finally, add the olive oil and mash into the paste with the fork.

Taste for salt. It probably won't need any since the cheeses are pretty salty.

Serve on pasta or spread on crostini and broil. Heck, eat it by the spoonful if you want. It's much better than those store bought pestos and you made it yourself.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at July 24, 2004 9:01 PM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

Sounds delicious, Barrett - I haven't made pesto in years but now is certainly the season. The only small thing I do differently is to toast the pine nuts a little in a dry frying pan before adding them; it brings out the nuttiness a little more.

As for those days on Seminary, I remember the basil garden well as it was the only time in my life I have successfully managed to grow it in such quantitites. I guess Chicago summers are ideal for basil! As I recall it, though, I was trying unsuccessfully to reproduce Leona's spinach and basil pesto and tried so often that you and the ex-girlfriend/ex-friend eventually rebelled and refused to eat any more pesto. Ever. Glad to see the damage wasn't permanent!

Posted by Meg in Paris on July 25, 2004 at 6:36 AM

I don't remember swearing off pesto, but I can certainly believe I did it in my foolish youth. We did tend to be single minded about dinner choices in that house.

And by "we" I think you know who I mean.

Posted by Barrett on July 25, 2004 at 2:47 PM

Meg, do you toast the nuts in a dry pan or do you use oil?

I'm growing some nice basil on my patio. I'm just worried that that the heat will kill it off.

Posted by Todd on July 26, 2004 at 9:14 AM

I toast them dry. They don't burn as suddenly and unexpectedly as sesame seeds but you have to watch them too.

As for killing off the basil, I think that as long as you give them loads of water they can stand almost any amount of heat. Chicago is a lot hotter and more humid than Paris and I think that's why it grows better there. Then again, what do I know? I have only grown it successfully once!

Posted by Meg in Paris on July 26, 2004 at 10:01 AM

Thanks for the mortar and pestle inspiration, Barrett! I am committing to try it the next time I make pesto. I usually make it in a food processor, and for some reason have been a little intimidated by the traditional method. I remember reading that when someone wants to work at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters tests them by making them make pesto by hand for something like forty people.

Posted by jen on July 26, 2004 at 5:39 PM

From my own brief experience, I can tell you that if I took the Alice Waters test, I'd end up with forearms like Popeye.

It's hard work, but well worth it!

Posted by Barrett on July 27, 2004 at 1:17 PM

My second effort making pesto, but first with mortar & pestle, looks, smells & tastes outstanding. Next time I will definitely chop down the garlic first, it takes the most time and is the hardest to reduce down.

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