The region of Genoa, on the northwestern coast of Italy, is home to that great basil, garlic, cheese and pine nut sauce, “pesto,” called “pesto alla genovese” in Italian.
Genoa was also home to the navigator Christopher Columbus, who sailed for the Spanish Crown. We don’t know his food preferences. Less auspiciously, Genoa is also the ancestral home of the Donderos, including my great-grandfather, Joseph Francis Dondero, who sailed from there to America in the mid-19th century. His pesto recipe – if he had one – was not handed down through the family.
The name “pesto” comes from the Latin for “pounded” or “crushed,” since the ingredients were originally pounded together in a marble mortar and pestle. The word “pestle” has the same linguistic origin.
Despite variations, including a delicious Sicilian red “pesto rosso,” made from dried tomatoes and almonds, and an arugula pesto, basil-based pesto remains the classic. A milder but still authentic version, which I prefer, replaces 1/4 of that herb with fresh parsley. There is also a relative of pesto, “pistou,” in Provence, on the French Mediterranean coast near to Genoa. French pistou does not use pine nuts and may or may not contain cheese.
Ideally the basil for pesto should be young and of the large-leaved “Genovese” variety. In early June basil is at its peak in Georgia. As pine nuts (“pignoli”) are expensive, walnuts are sometimes substituted. (I also get a reaction to at least some pine nuts, which I used to love, with my taste being distorted to bitter for a week or two afterwards.) The cheese for pesto is traditionally either Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Sardo, or Parmesan.
Though better when freshly made, pesto can be refrigerated for up to a week. An added layer of olive oil over the surface slows the color from browning. If freezing pesto for later use, omit the cheese and add it just before serving.
A traditional pasta for pesto is “trenette,” long flat noodles often made with eggs. Fettuccini is an available substitute. In the region of Genoa, potato and green beans are sometimes cooked in with the pasta. Pesto is also served with potato gnocchi, which are little fork-scored dumplings, and sometimes with that charmingly named pasta, “strozza preti” — priest stranglers.
Traditionally, just before use, pesto is diluted with a little boiling water from the cooking pasta. The pasta is drained then tossed with the pesto in large serving bowl and topped with additional grated cheese.
The recipe makes enough dressed pasta for six people.
Pesto with Pasta
1-1/2 cups fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1/2 cup parsley leaves, flat “Italian” type preferred, lightly packed
3 tablespoons pine nuts, or walnuts (lightly toasted – see below)
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
5/8 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese, or a mixture, plus extra for garnish
Salt for boiling the pasta
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch chunks
1/4 pound green beans (optional), cut in 1-inch lengths
1 pound fresh pasta, if available, or 12 ounces dry
Put basil, parsley, pine nuts or walnuts (toast walnuts about 3 minutes on a plate in the microwave), garlic, oil, and salt in a blender or food processor. Pulse it a number of times, scraping down the container with a spatula. Do not purée the herbs, but chop them until they are tiny specks. Remove the mixture to a bowl. Stir in the cheese.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt. If using fresh pasta, which cooks more quickly, add potatoes and green beans if used, and bring water back to a boil. Add the fresh pasta and stir immediately so it does not stick together. If using dry pasta, add it, the potatoes and green beans, if used, together to the boiling water and stir immediately so pasta doesn’t stick together. Either way, let boil, stirring frequently. While pasta is cooking, remove 1/2 cup of the pasta-boiling water and stir it into the pesto.
When pasta is tender to the bite, drain it in a colander, shaking briefly, and transfer it to a large serving bowl. Toss pasta with the diluted pesto. Sprinkle with a little more cheese.