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Making Pesto (the normal way)

I grew plenty of basil this season, with the intention of making pesto. Somewhere I read that the flavour of basil is at its most intense when it starts going to seed. When I first see that happening, I cut it back and that extends the life of the plant some, but when the basil gets insistent about going to seed, I know it’s pesto time.

I make pesto the “normal” way – that is by using a mortar and pestle. After all, the name pesto comes from pestâ, a verb meaning to pound or crush. It is far and away faster to instead use a food processor, but in my little mind, that produces a sauce involving chopped or processed basil along with the other ingredients, pine nuts or walnuts, super-good olive oil and a strong hard cheese. There is no doubt it is great. To me though, it’s not pesto if you don’t pound it. Pesto not made the normal way is like using a gas bbq instead of charcoal to grill a steak. Sure it’s pretty good, sometimes even excellent, and you might try to convince yourself it’s as good as using charcoal, but in your heart you know it just isn’t so. Besides, I hate cleaning food processors so I only use one when I can’t find another way to get the result I’m looking for (that means rarely).

I intended to use pine nuts but couldn’t find them in 2 stores, so I went with walnuts. This is not a consolation prize. Walnuts are insanely good in pesto. The same two stores that didn’t have pine nuts also only had Parmesan cheese in the pre-grated “shake cheeze” form. Is that even cheese? Is it even a food product? I don’t know. Instead I opted for a big wedge of Grana Padano. This is an excellent cheese, which comes from the Po River Valley in northern Italy. It’s yummy and works great in pesto.

Traditionally, I ought to have used only Italian basil for my pesto, but I also had lots of Thai basil growing in the yard as well as Italian basil, so I threw caution to the wind and pounded both kinds. As well, I did not skimp on the garlic. The resulting pesto is really intense, with a hot edge to it. Fantastic!


  1. I love anything with basil in it, but I’ve never made pesto. Part of that is orneriness. I’ve had good success growing basil when I can’t find it at farmers markets and I swear to god I started hating the idea of pesto without ever having had it because every time someone saw me with a pile of basil or saw my plants, they’d say “ARE YOU GONNA MAKE PEEEEESTO?” as if that were the only thing you could do with it. I eat it in garden salads, Caprese, soups, the Engineer makes shrimp Fradiavolo, I could go on. I finally found a recipe for soupe au pistou, which is just garden vegetable soup with white beans basically, but you dump pesto — sorry, pistou in it, and that change in inflection got me over the hump of at least eating the stuff.

    The walnut variation sounds pretty good. I would eat anything with walnuts in it.

    • I like basil in all kinds of things too. The only time we have pesto is when I make it once each year and it’s a great summer treat.

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