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Pesto, two ways

When I first learned to make pesto, it was “dump everything in the cuisinart and pulse.” I’m still of the philosophy that if you have good indregients, that method is just fine. However, when Heidi over at 101 cookbooks posted about making pesto like an Italian grandmother, I knew I’d have to try it the “proper” way at some point. (Her pics are beautiful…too bad I can’t say the same for my own; they really capture the dim lighting of a classic first apartment.) Heidi, thank you for inspiring amateurs like myself to try this technique!

The major difference between store-bought pesto and classic Italian pesto is texture. The bottled stuff spreads like a paste, whereas the more traditional, labor-intensive product is like a finely-chopped salsa (just, uh…more finely chopped). Without further ado, pesto:

Heidi says that a mezzaluna is the best tool for chopping. Alternatively, use a half-moon-shaped pizza slicer (or just make do with a good, big, sharp knife). In any event, plan on allotting about half an hour for all the chopping, since you’ll only be chopping a bit at a time.

As you’ll notice from my pictures, I actually tried this twice. The first time I used a silicon cutting mat and the traditional proportions: a bunch of fresh basil, a few cloves of garlic, a handful of pinenuts, and about a cup of parmigiano reggiano. I followed Heidi’s directions to first chop the basil and garlic, then add the pine nuts, then add the cheese. It worked quite nicely, though I added olive oil to the top to preserve it as she recommended, and I found that it made the pesto more oily than I had wanted it.

The second time, I used a wooden cutting board (smart Rivka, smart), varied the proportions a bit, and changed my technique as well. I made a pine nut-heavy pesto, as a compromise for D, who is not a basil lover (I know, I don’t get it either.) (Of course, I forgot that she also hates pine nuts. Silly me.) I also decided to chop the pine nuts and cheese before the basil and garlic, to see how it would change things. In the end…..the Italian Grandmother knows best. If you don’t start with the basil and garlic, they become very difficult to chop to the degree of fineness required. The nuts and cheese are much easier to incorporate into the basil and garlic than vice versa. Am I shocked that an Italian pro knows better than amateur me? no. Did I have to try just to make sure? apparently.

One handful fresh basil
a few (2-4) cloves of garlic, to taste
heaping handful of pine nuts
scant cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated fresh
good olive oil

Begin by chopping the basil and garlic together until fine.
Add pine nuts in two or three additions, chopping until the mix resembles a finely-chopped salsa.
Add cheese in two or three additions; I find that the cheese helps hold the pesto together, so that by the second addition of cheese, the ingredients start to become well-incorporated.
Pour some olive oil over the top (about 1/4 cup?) and continue chopping, until mixture can be combined into a block on the cutting board.

If you’re planning to use this later, pack it into a bowl or tupperware and cover with a generous layer of olive oil, which will prevent the basil from oxidizing and turning dark.

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