Does anyone remember Art Ginsburg, also known as Mr. Food? His syndicated segments appeared on the news for almost 10 years. I met him back in 1993, and he was quite the self-promoter…but a really nice guy. Art passed away many years ago, but I still have his old cookbooks, and his simple but perfect pesto recipe has been my guide for decades.
We eat a ton of pesto at home. Most of the time, it’s simply mixed with pasta. But we stir it into tomato sauce and smear it on grilled chicken or beef as well.
Basil is the main ingredient in classic Italian pesto, and it’s growing rapidly under the summer sun in my garden right now. And that’s key to great pesto: when Mother Nature says the basil’s ready, be sure you have all the other ingredients and get to work!
Besides the fact that it simply tastes bad, the problem with store-bought pesto is that it’s expensive. Although homemade pesto isn’t cheap, you can still save a lot of money by making it yourself.
Some of my tips for saving money: buy good quality ingredients in bulk. My go-to olive oil is one from Tunisia called Terra Delyssa. It delicious, and can be found in large, affordable bottles at most supermarkets. I have one rule of thumb with olive oil: always buy a bottle from one source–one country. Don’t go for the blends.
There’s been a rash of articles about already-grated parmesan cheese that is 50% cellulose (wood) fiber. Stay away from that junk and buy yourself a nice chunk of the real deal: Parmigiano-Reggiano. Grate it yourself and taste the difference!
The most expensive (and questionable) ingredient in basic pesto is pine nuts. If you look on the back of the package (and you always should!) you’ll see that most pine nuts come from China. I don’t buy any food products from China…period. So sourcing “safe” pine nuts can be difficult. The Italian or Turkish pine nuts can be extremely expensive. Some from Siberia less so, but still questionable, in my mind. Sadly, it’s gotten to the point where I really had to start looking for an alternative to pine nuts.
One of the reasons you want real pine nuts and not some look-alike from China is something called “pine mouth” or “pine nut mouth.” A small percentage of people experience a reaction after eating pine nuts that makes their mouth taste like metal–imagine putting a handful of pennies in your mouth–and the taste stays in their mouths for a couple of weeks, ruining their taste buds for the foods they love. (Eventually, it wears off.) Some scientists say you get “pine mouth” by eating counterfeit pine nuts–varieties like those from China that are not the same species. Others say that you can get the reaction even from real pine nuts. Research on this continues, but all the more reason not to buy any foods from China and other questionable countries.
There are alternatives to pine nuts, and you’ll find many pesto recipes that substitute with almonds or pistachios. I think those nuts change the taste of the pesto, plus they have a skin that leaves a gritty residue, which I don’t like. So I don’t use them. Macadamia nuts are a good substitute. They’re less expensive than pine nuts and usually come from Hawaii. But after much experimentation, I’ve found that the best and cheapest substitute for pine nuts is walnuts. They’re available everywhere, and none of my family or friends have noticed a change of the pesto’s flavor.
So here’s my sure-fire pesto recipe. I make massive amounts of it, store it in plastic storage containers with a tightly sealing screw-top lid, and put them in the deep freeze. They last all year, and thaw out easily.
2 cups fresh basil, packed down a little
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano)
1/2 cup real Italian pine nuts (or walnuts)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
When measuring the basil, I pick dry leaves from the garden and place them in a measuring cup, lightly packing them until I get 2 cups. (More is better than less!) Then I remove them from the measuring cup and wash them, tossing them in a salad spinner to dry. Then they go into the food processor. (If you wash them before measuring, they will pack much more tightly, and you won’t get the correct amount.)
Add the other ingredients in the food processor with the basil and let it rip!
The color and fragrance of freshly-made pesto is hard to beat! For me, a bowl of pasta with pesto is real comfort food.