By Executive Chef Lorenzo Boni of Barilla America.
Here in America we think of pesto as the combination of basil, Parmigiano, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil. But the Pesto Genovese, as that recipe is properly called, is one of two classic pestos going back hundreds of years. The other hails from Sicily, and is quite different. Instead, its base is fresh ricotta, tomatoes, basil and either almonds or pine nuts.
How can they both be pesto? Well, the word pesto comes from the Italian word pestare “to pound” as these were originally made by hand with a mortar and pestle. By not cooking the ingredients, the delicate aromatics are retained, and you get their full effect.
These days, chefs have discovered that almost any combination of nuts, aromatic herbs and EVOO can be combined, resulting in a limitless array of different versions. I love the combination of pistachios, basil, and parsley or mint. The bright green color and full herb flavor is amazing. A simple pesto of nettles, Parmigiano, salt & pepper and EVOO is great, too. I’ve even done a take on Sicilian pesto with sautéed artichoke hearts, pistachios, ricotta and parsley. Here are some tips for creating your own pesto:
Use any fresh herb, green, or vegetable: arugula, spinach, kale, marjoram… nettles are amazing (just be sure to blanch them)
Use any nut you like: pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, even cashews will work well.
Use a good amount of EVOO; a minimum of 6TBS per pound of pasta that you want to serve.
If using a blender, start with a few ice cubes. They will keep the blades from “cooking” the aromatics, and add a bit of water to lubricate the sauce as they melt. Add the oil at the end.
Try using roasted or confit garlic instead of raw; it will keep better, and impart a milder, fuller flavor.
When adding pesto to your pasta, soften it first with a ladle of cooking water. This will help it cling to the pasta, and keep the pesto from clumping. Simply toss the cooked pasta in a bowl with the pesto and serve.