Classic Basil Pesto

In this season of copious basil and fresh summer dinners, the question comes up often: do you have a good pesto recipe? I always balk at this question. Pesto and recipe don’t go together in my mind. You know, a few fistfuls of basil, some lemon zest and juice, some nuts, a few cloves of garlic, cheese if you want it, olive oil until it starts to come together in that softer green emulsified state. It’s just so forgiving and flexible, and can be successful with myriad combinations and ratios of ingredients. But nevertheless, it’s probably useful to have some rough quantities when shopping and preparing, at least until you get the hang of it, so here’s my go at it.

The lemon element is worth discussing since it might not be traditional… I like to add it for two reasons: 1) it helps the pesto to not oxidize and turn brown quite so much, and 2) it brightens up the flavor of the pesto without making it taste lemony, per se. Now, if you’re after that deep sweet earthy richness (who among us is not after that), the quantities here will give you just a shade of brightness without overpowering the richness. If you want more lemon bang, feel free to up the quantities. As I said, this is all very forgiving.

As for salt, go easy, since the parmesan will add some salt, but you just have to do it to taste. Salt, blend, taste, salt, blend, taste, gradually. You’ll know you’ve got it when it stops tasting like garliclemonbasilpinenutsparmesan in a food processor, and starts tasting like pesto.

Basil Pesto

(makes about 1 1/2 cups of pesto)

3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
Zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
5 cups packed fresh basil leaves
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil

Pre-note: I do all this in a food processor, but it would be even more awesome in a mortar and pestle. I just don’t happen to have one… yet.

Add the garlic, lemon, and pine nuts to the bowl of the food processor and pulse a few times until everything is roughly chopped. Add the basil, lemon juice, parmesan, pepper, and about a teaspoon of salt and turn the food processor on.

While everything is whirring, slowly drizzle in the olive oil through the top spout. You’ll see the mixture go from a darker herby green to a slightly softer more pastel color, and the pesto will begin to clump up a bit around the blade. Stop the food processor and taste for salt. If needed, add more and then whir again until everything is combined and delicious.

Important final step: no matter what you are doing with this batch, get a piece of bread, preferably crusty and not too whole-wheaty. Once you’ve emptied the food processor bowl into a separate bowl for serving or container for storage, use the bread to mop and scrape the inside of the bowl, making sure to sop the pesto (carefully) off the blade as well. Sometimes the best bites are for the cook.


2 thoughts on “Classic Basil Pesto

  1. Syl

    Sounds delish. Have you ever made pesto with other types of basil? I have cinnamon basil. Will that work? Also I’ve heard that the flowers on basil should be discarded because they are bitter. What’s your take on that?

  2. Caetie Ofiesh Post author

    Syl, I tend to throw it all in there, but that’s not the most refined choice. I haven’t experienced the flowers being bitter.

    Cinnamon basil would be interesting, but I haven’t tried it. I wonder whether italian pesto would be the best vehicle for that though, seems like the flavors could be a bit out of sync there.


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