Pesto Sauce

March 16, 2011 / Food & Wine

(cont’d from here)

As promised, here is a recipe for traditional Ligurian pesto. Keep in mind that each household will have its own ratios for ingredients as well as various preparation tricks, to make its own “very best” pesto. How to come up with your own perfect variation? Practice practice practice….

4 bunches of basil (about 60-100 grams, 2-3 ounces)
20 gr pecorino cheese
40 gr of parmigiano cheese
A handful of pine nuts (you can use also walnuts)
2 cloves garlic
Extra virgin olive oil

Wash and dry with paper the small basil leaves (be careful not to mash them when you dry them). While the leaves are drying, chop 2 cloves of garlic with a bit of salt. After chopping garlic and salt, add the basil leaves, pine nuts, the ground parmigiano and pecorino cheeses and mix it all with mortar and pestle (purists eschew using a blender as it will “bruise” the leaves) gradually adding the olive oil. The pesto sauce should not be too “liquidy”.
The preparation must be done as quickly as possible to avoid oxidation problems.

And that, straight from Liguria!

Anna Merulla

by Anna Merulla

Founder of Beautiful Liguria, a travel concierge service that offers everything from tour planning, hiking excursions, cooking lessons, personal shopping and much more in this great region. In 2009 she decided to begin sharing her personal knowledge of the beauty, the culture, and the history of Liguria in which she’s immersed every day.

31 Responses to “Pesto Sauce”

  1. Evanne

    Great idea, thanks. Do you know that you can also freeze this in ice cube trays and plop the frozen cubes in ziploc bags to use in wintertime for soups and sauces?

  2. giuseppe spano (jojo)
    giuseppe spano (jojo)

    the comment from Evanne, is one of those wonderful points that launches a full scale debate and leads to many hours of gesticulating and expressions along with drinking of wine, eating good food and making long time friendships

  3. As I was reading Evanne’s comment I was thinking ‘now that’s a debate in the making’ Giuseppe! It’s a good thing though!

  4. Linda Boccia

    If you put it in ice trays leave out the parmigiana until it thawed. I have found it is better without it in the freezer…fresher tasting. Liguria is beautiful and the people are lovely. Our cousin prepared fresh raspberry sorbetto one year we were there in season.

  5. Paula (Giangreco) Cullison

    The best pesto I ever had was while staying in the home of friends in San Giuseppe di Cairo near Savona. Freezing pesto sounds almost sacrilegious. I have to think about this. When I am in a rush … which is most of the time….I rely on Classico Pesto Sauce.
    Drain off the oil … heat and enjoy!

  6. Gian Banchero

    Though part of my family is from Genova the recipe I use is from my Piemontese grandmother (Nonna Lena) who used a goodly amount of garlic, maybe half a large head per two bunches. She also used to salt ground basil and garlic, it would last for decades and give a distinctive flavor to many dishes. I use basil at the start of spring, it heralds in with great joy the disappearance of the dreaded winter. Interestingly though pine nuts or walnuts are traditionally used filbert (hazelnuts) were used in my grandmother’s area over a century ago being that the tree was to be found everywhere, of course no good self respecting Genovese would accept that variation. When I freeze pesto I add to the basil only garlic in that with cheese or butter (Nonna Lena always used butter along with some olive oil) things go rancid after a while. Grazie Anna!

  7. carol lundin

    I’m curious why there was no mention of the wonderful custom of adding green beans and potatoes to the pasta water.

  8. I love pesto. This is a good base recipe. I concur that if you want to prepare pesto ahead of time, do not add the cheese element until ready to serve. My question is for the so-called “purists” out there, how does mashing the basil in the mortar and pestle not “bruise” the leaves any less than a blender would? I have tried both techniques and settled on the blender as the most efficient. Both methods are delicious!

  9. Evanne

    I agree about leaving out the cheese, and love the comments about the debates. I turned 65 today so am ready to debate just about anything, while I celebrate free medical care here starting…today! Let’s have some pesto!

  10. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Thanks Anna, life would not be the same without a dressing of pesto. One of the many joys of life here – access to large bunches of basil!

  11. Boy, does that look good! Pesto and acciughe evoke the most marvelous visit to Cinque Terre.

  12. Vincent Piraro

    Wow, the recipe looks great cant wait to try it. Also read about freezing in cube trays for later use. Wonder if I can use those cubes in the sauce for seasoning too! Thanks Notebook fan…

  13. Gian Banchero

    Dear Vincent Piraro;
    One wonderful way to use frozen pesto cubes is to add one to a nice large steaming bowl of thick minestrone Genovese style(a glug of good rough wine is also a good addition), allow the frozen pesto to melt for a moment. Also a couple cubes thrown in at the last moment into a nice rich stew does wonders. Thawed pesto is wonderful placed on raw salmon then baked at 350 degrees for fifteen to twenty minutes depending on the thickness of the fish’s fillet. I’m not a lover of salmon but it marries well with pesto which allows me to overcome any aversion, delicious.

  14. Vincent Piraro

    Gian, thank you for your additional recipes they popped off the page and ran into the kitchen…can’t wait to try the new dishes with the pesto….Basil is my favorite herb…from grandfather to grandson…

  15. Might be a stupid question but I’m never quite sure how much water to leave with the pasta to mix the pesto in well.

    Sometimes there’s not enough- and its a bit sticky and doesn’t cover the pasta homogenously. Other times I leave too much and it’s too runny.

    Should I drain the water completely and dose with olive oil, THEN add the pesto?

    Any tips?

  16. Paula (Giangreco) Cullison

    Si …. drain the water completely and THEN add the pesto. I don’t use olive oil because there is plently in the pesto and it will coat the pasta better (without the evoo. Enjoy!

  17. Carol Burke

    Because parsley comes in bunches too large to use at one time, I use the same procedure to save it for multiple uses – I pack the chopped tips into an ice cube freezer tray and add just enough water to cover. When frozen I pack the cubes in a freezer bag in a pattern that takes up the least room. When needed, I just take a cube or two and add to whatever I am making. Thanks for the pesto sauce directioins. Must try this.

  18. Gian Banchero

    Dear Tio Stevo;
    It was springtime about 1975, the season for my grandmother to make jars and jars of salted pesto (only a level teaspoon would be used in certain dishes), she would spend days harvesting basilico using a mortar and pestle and a lot of muscle power to achieve the desired end product, she tried a meat grinder a couple times which resulted in a minced wet wrung out result with a lot of liquid that had to be captured in a plate and reintroduced to the ground basil, sometimes she’d use a mezzaluna knife if she was making fresh pesto for two or three people… One spring day I borrowed a food processor, brought it over to my grandmother’s house and we went through a bushel of basil in no time, her comment was that she wished the machine would have been invented decades earlier. The end result of “machine pesto” differs somewhat from the traditional pesto but not much, not one member of my family in Genova, Piemonte or Milano uses the mortar and pestle anymore now that the food processor is in everyones’ kitchen… A few years ago I read that introducing a crushed up vitamin C tablet to pesto would keep it green, I’ve done this a couple times and as long as a film of oil covers the pesto the color does keep, plus interestingly there isn’t any citrus taste.

  19. Eleanor Walden

    This is a delightful statement that brings the old and the new together. Which, of course, is what the tastes and smells and preparation of food does. That’s why food is the last element of folklore and culture to get lost in new lands and circumstances. The Vit. C trick sound good or ascorbic acid is sold for canning and would probably work without having to crush tablets.

  20. Ingrid Saab

    That’s right Gian. The oil adds flavor and it keeps it from changing color. Also a bit of lemon juice helps too for both reasons. My father’s basil pesto recipe calls for pinenuts.

  21. Gian Banchero

    One more comment before I close up shop… Though pesto is rightly associated with the north of Italy Sicily has several stellar variations that are worth the try, the most famous being Pesto alla Trapanese made with basil, tomatoes (either Roma or Pachino cherry) and almonds, though very different than the Genovese style it is still delicious and worth the try… Now to ward off this cold day I’m off to make a nice large pot of pasta fazool using the usual suspects along with a plop of pesto (Genovese!) over each serving… Look up Pesto alla Trapanese on the Internet, there are several recipes offered. Thank you for your comment about ascorbic acid Eleanor Walden.

  22. Gian Banchero

    Yet another comment from my kitchen! Thank you Ingrid Saab for suggesting lemon juice in the pesto, I did as such last night and was surprised this morning to find the pesto (under oil) a most brilliant green, plus there was no lemony flavor, just the wonderful taste of basil!

  23. Anne Robichaud

    Enjoyed! We are fans, too, of the pesto trapanese mentioned above..and always head to Paolo’s in Castelluzzo for our “fix” when in Sicily, home of my husband Pino…

  24. Anne Robichaud


    The variety of basil cultivated on the Ligurian coast (and which enriches the Genovese pesto with its rich perfume) is fundamental for this traditional dish. This variety of basil has a small convex leaf, oval-shaped; color is delicate green. Prime characteristic: its delicate fragrance. Ocimum basilicum arrived in Europe from Africa with the Romans and this basil quickly becomes the basic herb of Ligurian cuisine and of course, of the famous Genovese pesto.

    The Region of Liguria has now applied for DOP (“denominazione d’origine protetta”) status for its pesto, i.e., Protected Designation of Origin status which means that “pesto alla genovese” can ONLY come from the Genoa area. DOP recognition will be an affirmation of the Genovese saying, “Se il basilicao é foresto, di sicuro non é pesto” (“If the basil is foreign, then it can’t be pesto”).

  25. Gian Banchero

    March 26, 2011
    Before closing my book on pesto I must relate to fellow pesto lovers that a friend in Genova recently told me that pure pesto is delicious spooned over broiled or barbecued beefsteak, also mixing a little pesto into mayonnaise makes for a good condiment to be spread over fish; this I tried, don’t use too much pesto being it’ll compete with the flavor of the fish and will win.

  26. All these comments inspired me to make a batch of pesto, which I hadn’t made in ages. Gian mentioned using a food processor instead of a blender, which indeed is more efficient. The lemon juice trick to keep the pesto bright green works too; this was my first time trying both, and I’m glad I did! A few fresh tomato chunks made this a perfect summer meal.
    Now if only I could fix the wicked garlic breath that comes with pesto…

  27. Rita Prigioni

    Every summer, I make quite a few batches of pesto. One time, I ran out of pine nuts, so I used raw pumpkins seeds and almonds. No one could really tell the difference. It came out very tasty.


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