Basil Pesto Recipe

What to do when there’s more basil than you know what to do with? Pesto, obviously! It’s one of the best summer recipes out there. Here, we’re making it, Ligurian style, just like Nonna Lidia did in the first episode of Samin Nosrat’s Netflix series, “Salt Fat Acid Heat.” I was a little behind the eight ball in reading her book and watching her show, but better late than never! It’s a game-changer.

Side note: After watching the episode, I am now on the hunt for a giant Ligurian marble mortar and pestle, as well as an antique wooden cheese grater. Since moving to Italy, I have become very anti-consumerist, but I still covet particular kitchen gadgets, especially those used by Italian grannies.

Tips for making basil pesto

While I made her recipe with a mortar and pestle, you can follow the same steps and order using a food processor. If you are fortunate to have more basil in your herb garden than the recipe calls for, I recommend doubling or tripling the batch and freezing your leftovers in ice cube trays. This makes for a speedy and easy weeknight meal prep.

Another tip – if you make the pesto ahead of time, remember that it will oxidize, similar to guacamole. To avoid this, cover the pesto with a thin layer of olive oil to keep it from turning brown. The extra oil can be stirred into the final dish, adding to the rich, herbaceous flavor. If preserving under oil, use within two days.

Which Cheese Should I Use In Pesto?

Two-thirds go to Parmesan. One-third to Pecorino. Traditional “pesto alla Genovese” calls for Sardinian pecorino (pecorino Sardo). However, I live in Umbria, also quite famous for its pecorino cheese. I have an affinity for the aged pecorino “Il Principe,” from Caseficio Montecristo, in the nearby (adorable) city of Todi. But I also understand that you likely don’t have the same selection in the US. My suggestion? Go with the best you can find. You want it to be aged, but not so aged it’s full of tyrosine crystals. Too aged, and it’ll be too salty. We don’t want to kill the fresh herbiness of the basil or the extra virgin olive oil.

How Can I Use Pesto?

There are so many ways! This recipe calls for pasta. However, on the day I made this batch, we had friends over for an American-style BBQ, so I simply stirred the pesto in with halved, boiled new potatoes. Voilà, pesto potato salad. You could also incorporate it into a vinaigrette for a summer salad, use it like chimichurri on a steak, or dollop it onto sourdough toast with fresh ricotta and roasted cherry tomatoes. I encourage you to get creative – don’t feel bound to pasta. 

Basil Pesto Recipe

  • ¼ cup (30 grams) pine nuts
  • 2 cups (70 grams) tightly packed basil leaves, preferably Genovese
  • ⅔ cup (60 grams) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
  • ⅓ cup (30 grams) finely grated aged pecorino
  •  Sea salt
  • ⅓ cup (80 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
  • 1 pound pasta – trofie, buccatini, or spaghetti 
  1. Set a large pot of water to boil over high heat.
  2. Use a mortar and pestle* to grind the pine nuts to a fine paste (no distinct pieces should be visible).
  3. Add basil to pine nuts along with a pinch of salt, which will help break down the leaves. Continue pounding and grinding until the basil breaks down completely (if your mortar is small, pound the basil in batches), about 7 minutes.
  4. Once the nuts and basil combine into a thick green paste, stir in Parmesan, pecorino, and olive oil. Taste and adjust salt as needed.
  5. Generously season water with salt. Cook pasta until al dente, according to package instructions, then drain, reserving a cup of cooking water. 
  6. Place cooked pasta in a serving bowl and stir in pesto. Add splashes of cooking water and olive oil as needed to loosen the sauce and ensure the pasta is evenly coated. 
*If using a food processor instead of a mortar and pestle, follow the steps in the same order. 
**You can also make this recipe with 1 clove of garlic. If using, add between the pine nuts and the basil. 
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