How to Make Pesto alla Genovese
Add bright summery flavor and color to your dishes with this easy pesto recipe! Get the classic Pesto alla Genovese recipe, plus variations to make your pesto vegan, oil-free, and more.
School’s out for the summer and it’s that magical time of year when my veggie garden suddenly goes from scrawny to exploding with bright bushy foliage. I’ve noticed, again, that I’ve planted too much in each planter box. When I planted the seeds and baby transplants back in March it was hard to imagine that these little plants would grow so big. Kind of like kids, right? My eldest daughter is now a fourth grader. That can’t be right, can it?
Even if you don’t have the time or space for your own vegetable garden, a little herb garden can be fun and rewarding. Basil is my favorite herb to grow in the summer. And this traditional Pesto Genovese is the perfect way to celebrate it.
What is Pesto, Anyway?
Pesto is a sauce that originated in Genoa, Italy around the 16th century. The name pesto came from the Italian word peste, which translates to to pound, to crush. Pesto is traditionally made by grinding the ingredients by hand with a mortar and pestle. In Italy, a pesto is any sauce made in this fashion. For example, there are red sun dried tomato pestos. The most common pesto, however, is Pesto alla Genovese, which is made by grinding basil, pine nuts, garlic, and Parmigano cheese into a butter, and then mixing in copious amounts of olive oil.
I love all the areas of Italy I’ve visited, but Genoa is a particularly stunning area on the northern coast. Since I’m headed back to this area later in the month I thought I should master the art of pesto alla Genovese.
How to Make Classic Basil Pesto
Homemade pesto is all about simple, fresh ingredients. I try to use the best ingredients I can find here since each flavor really comes through. You’ll want nice big bunches of freshly picked basil. I’ve found beautiful basil at our local farmers market and even Trader Joe’s.
Though lemon isn’t necessarily a traditional ingredient in pesto, I do like to add a squeeze to brighten it up from time to time. I also think lemon prevents the pesto from browning quite as quickly. Like basil, lemons grow in abundance in Liguria, so adding it here makes sense to me!
The fun thing about making pesto is that there are so many ways to make the recipe your own and measuring really isn’t even necessary. Pesto making tradition says to use one clove of garlic per 30 basil leaves, but really it’s one of those recipes you can tweak as you go, adding a bit more salt or garlic here and there. Though I love the tradition of grinding pesto with a mortar and pestle, I will admit, I use a food processor.
Vegan pesto: Omit the cheese or use nutritional yeast for nutty “cheesy” flavor. You’ll want to add a bit more salt when leaving out the cheese.
Low oil: Replace some or all of the oil with water until the pesto reaches the desired consistency.
Kale pesto: Use half the amount of basil and replace the other half with kale or spinach.
Walnut pesto: Replace some or all of the pine nuts with walnuts. Pine nuts can be pricey, so switching up the nuts can help.
Now that we know how to make pesto, what should we do with it? The most obvious answer is to mix it into warm pasta. Add a bit of pasta cooking water to make to take the pesto from paste to sauce. I have to tell you though, pasta isn’t my favorite way to enjoy pesto. With such bright fresh flavors I like to enjoy homemade pesto cold, as heat does change the flavor a bit. I love fresh pesto slathered on a piece of good crusty bread like they do in Cinque Terre or as a sandwich spread. It’s also terrific on pizza, in sandwiches, and in soups. Here are even more ways to use pesto.
RECIPES THAT USE PESTO
If you liked this recipe, you might also like: How to Make Marinara with Fresh Tomatoes!
Pesto alla Genovese
A classic basil pesto recipe for pasta, bruschetta, and more.
- 3-4 cups fresh basil leaves
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 Tablespoons pine nuts
- 1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (or 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast)
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- sea salt to taste
- squeeze of fresh lemon juice (optional)
- Wash and pat basil leaves dry.
- If using a mortar and pestle, place the garlic and small pinch of the sea salt in the mortar. Grind to a paste. Add the pine nuts and a handful of basil at a time and grind in a circular fashion until the basil is crushed to a paste. Stir in the cheese. Drizzle in just enough olive oil to bind the paste. Season to taste with sea salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. You can also use a bit of water to thin the pesto. If using a food processor, simply add the ingredients and pulse until the pesto has reached your desired consistency.
How to Store Pesto:
If you’re not using your pesto right away, transfer to a jar and top with a little olive oil. It should stay fresh for several days in the refrigerator.