Pesto means “to pound or crush” in Italian. It took me a while to figure that there’s no specific recipe for pesto. Twenty years ago, I first made it following Delia Smith’s recipe from her Summer cookbook, meticulously weighing out everything to good end result. It took me a few encounters with Italian cooks to figure that you can make pesto with a wide variety of greens, and as long as you follow a few basics, you can make your own version with ease and no weighing. Traditionally, Italians would have used a pestle and mortar, I cheat and use a mini chopper/food processor.
Preserving your pesto
It’s worth making a larger quantity and either freezing it or storing in the fridge. The one thing I learnt after several trials, is that the stored pesto must be covered with oil else it loses colour and flavour. The best way of doing it is to not add too much oil whilst grinding it. When making the pesto, keep it quite thick, and transfer to a tall bottle or jar. Add a generous amount of olive oil at the top so that there’s at least 1 cm of oil covering the pesto. (That’s why a tall narrow bottle works well). Store in the fridge. When you use it, carefully spoon out what you need. If there are any bits that are stuck to the side of the bottle, push them down again into the oil; else those will become bitter and dark. Add more olive oil if necessary to cover the top again.
If freezing, portion it into an ice-cube tray. Open freeze, and once frozen, transfer to zip lock bag and squeeze out all the air before putting away in the freezer.
Using your pesto
Apart from the ubiquitous pesto pasta, pesto is great in sandwiches, spread on pizza, as a dip with bread, drizzled on a mozzarella & tomato salad, and also makes an excellent salad dressing thinned out with some lemon juice. Another of my favourites is to stir through a little pesto through scrambled eggs right at the end of the cooking period. And it’s excellent with fish.
Basil, parsley, rocket, spinach, coriander, watercress and now wild garlic, are all excellent greens for making pesto. I almost always include some basil, because I love the flavour.
Most traditional recipes use pine nuts, but walnuts, almonds (often used in Sicily) cashews and pistachios all taste delicious. Go easy on the amount of nuts though, as they can overshadow the freshness of the greens. You can use the nuts raw or lightly toasted.
A small clove or two suffices. Much though I love garlic, when it’s raw it’s potent, and the garlic flavour should be mild in the finished pesto. With wild garlic pesto, there’s no need to add normal garlic, there’s plenty already there.
Parmesan is often the easiest to procure, but the stronger flavour of pecorino is my favourite if you can find some. Again, like nuts, go easy on the quantity of cheese, adding only a little at the end.
Good olive oil
Which you need plenty of.
Sicilian pesto is made with ripe tomatoes and almonds. Roasted red pepper or sundried tomatoes can ring some colourful changes. If the flavour of the finished pesto is a bit flat, add a squeeze of lemon.