Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pesto Rustico

Basil Pesto is a summer staple that whips up quickly in a food processor.  But that isn’t how it was always made so don’t let lack of equipment stop you from making a batch at a rental summerhouse.  All you need is a sharp knife and cutting board, a fork and a bowl.  

While I did not expect a mortar and pestle, I thought this house would at least have a cheese grater or micro-planer.  Thus, Pesto Rustico.  I washed and rolled the leaves of fresh basil into a cigar shape and cut the little roll into thin slices (chiffonade).  I destroyed the chiffonade with cross-wise slices that left me with finely chopped basil and placed it in a cereal bowl.  I added a large pinch of salt (my friction) and a handful of pine nuts.  Pine nuts are softer than the walnuts often used in American pestos.  Walnuts are generally less expensive but not easily crushed with a fork thus not the nut for this job.

With the side of a chef's knife, I crushed a whole garlic clove.  After peeling away the skin and I finely chopped the clove and added it to the basil leaves where the salt would help pulverize the garlic's pulp. 

With the back of a fork, I got to work crushing the basil against the salt and pine nuts to create a bright green paste.  Food historians believe this is roughly how the first pestos were made in mortars.  Using a pestle the hard working cooks pounded basil leaves with salt to produce a creamy base for pine nuts, cheese and olive oil.

Back at the cutting board I sliced and diced the Parmesan cheese into itsy-bitsy pieces that would melt into the warm pasta.  (A vegetable peeler would have yielded thin slices that would melt instantly but all I could find was a beer bottle opener.)  I mixed the cheese into the basil mixture and tasted for salt and black pepper.  (Remember that dry cheeses contribute salty flavor so add just enough at the beginning to help break down the basil leaves.)  A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil completed the flavor profile.

The result was a delightfully fresh and slightly deconstructed pesto that melted and melded into just drained Penne pasta.  Summer dinner with some grilled chicken.

Pesto Rustico
Serves 4

1 cup tightly packed fresh basil leaves
large pinch salt
1/3 cup pine nuts
1-2 garlic coves, peeled and finely minced
2 oz Parmesan cheese
black pepper to taste
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  1. Finely chop basil and mix with salt and pine nuts in a small bowl.  
  2. Add minced garlic.
  3. Crush mixture together with the back of a fork.  
  4. Grate or finely slice cheese and add with remaining ingredients to basil mixture.  
  5. Toss with 8 ounces cooked, hot Penne.  Serve hot or cold.