This week we will be exploring pesto, or as I like to refer to it ‘the paste with taste*’. My food processor has been earning its keep this weekend blending numerous variants of this Mediterranean classic in order to establish once and for all, which pesto is the besto.
A bit of background
When people say pesto what they generally mean is pesto alla genovese, a sauce composed of garlic, pine nuts, basil, Italian hard cheese and olive oil. However the noun pesto is actually a generic term for anything that is made by pounding, for example:
Dubious Character A: Did you see to Phil last night?
Dubious Character B: Yeah we made real pesto out of him.
Pesto pasta has saved the lives of thousands of culinarily-challenged students, preventing starvation during the long hard exam months. For an authentic experience the dish should be made with mandilli de sæa (silk handkerchiefs), but ASDA Smartprice Pasta Shapes are an acceptable alternative. (Other brands are available).
The formula for pesto is simple:
The possibilities within this equation are endless. The nuts can be toasted, untoasted or left out all together, but I think that’s taking the pistou.
Here is a rough guideline for quantities:
1 clove : 125g :125g : 75g : 200ml : to taste
The ratio above will create a sturdy ‘spreading pesto’ suitable for liberally slapping on some rustic bread. If you want something that will drizzle artistically for the benefit of your Instagram then ramp up the oil content to 250g.
- Crush, chop, cut, grate, pour (precision not necessary)
- Gnocchi time
The food processor vs pestle and mortar debate is hotly contested. Purists insist on using the latter, because they like to make life complicated. I say ignore the received wisdom and consult your own textural preference. Do you hanker after smooth and debonair or rough and rugged? I tend to opt for the processor because my ‘fun-sized’ P&M fits a total of 3 pine nuts and half a basil leaf. It would take me several hours to produce 1 jar of product.
Is it worth making?
1. Hazelnut and rocket
I left out the cheese and added a touch of citrus for this peppery alternative pesto. I also toasted the hazelnuts to add some depth of flavour.
The taste: Nice but not notable. I think rocket lacks the lingering fragrance desired of the leaves and the flavours could meld better. The taste of hazelnut stands aloof in the mixture.
The verdict: 6/10 Meh
2. Coconut oil, cashew and coriander
I’m intrigued by this one. The flavour combo is an Asian classic but I’m unsure about the texture. I also threw in some lime for good measure.
The taste: The oil has sort of congealed, forming solid white lumps in the green sludge. I am strongly reminded of a horrifying documentary I saw about fatbergs in the London sewers. Flavour is decent.
The verdict: 4/10 on account of the fact it needs to be heated before use. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
3. Almond and mint
This was the most common variant that I identified on Google, often paired with grilled meats or legumes.
The taste: I like this cooler more relaxed companion of the traditional spread. However a lot of the subtle almond taste and the delicate fragrance of the mint has been trampled over by the extra virgin olive oil.
The verdict: There’s potential here 7/10. I’d use a lighter oil next time around and toast the almonds.
4. Walnut and spinach
Walnuts are my favourite nut although as established in my post on nut butter they are in fact drupes in disguise. BTW did you know that the correct term for the edible part of a nut is the ‘nutmeat’. Sounds grim doesn’t it?
The taste: That delicious earthy mouth-filling flavour of the walnuts is cut through perfectly by the mineral notes of the spinach. It is a touch gritty however.
The verdict: Top quality and very moreish 8/10. Woops I had a second spoon…woops I had another one.
5. Egg white, sunflower seed and raw kale
Ok I confess. There is absolutely no way in which I think that this will actually work but I saw this recipe whilst researching and thought it was so implausible that I had to investigate.
The taste: Oh the humanity! Cup of phlegm anyone?
The verdict: Predictably revolting 2/10. I would give it 0/10 but I have to be fair, once converted into an omelette it’s edible if not enjoyable.
‘There is, to be sure, no evil without something good.’
― Pliny the Elder
6. Pesto alla genovese (the regular stuff)
No substitutes, no additions and no other comments to make.
The taste: And there it is. The first hit of flavour comes in from the Parmesan and olive oil. The sharp fruitiness livens up my taste buds before giving way to rich toasty taste of the pine nuts and aromatic swell of the basil. The subtle hint of garlic is just peeking over the flavour profile throughout. The creamy texture retains just enough bite to keep it interesting. The warm glow of late afternoon sunshine has been captured in my Kilner jar. It might be -3°C and snowing but I feel like I’m on a trip to the Med.
The verdict: Sometimes classic is best. Don’t fix what isn’t broke 9/10.
A note of thanks
Props to my ailing housemate who inspired this post. Sadly pine nuts are amongst the many ingredients to which she is allergic, prompting me to look for a suitable substitute. It’s hard to keep track of which nuts she can and cannot eat so I produced the following lists which I need your help completing (dearest reader). If you can think of some appropriate nut puns for those in bold below then do get in touch!
Not to eat
- Cashewdn’t eat this
- Braz-ill nut
- Pine nut
- Wal-not a problem