A plate of gnocchi with basil pesto

How to make basil pesto

Jarred basil pesto is ubiquitous. I often buy it as it makes for a speedy dinner on a busy night. But the real deal fresh from a bunch of basil is on another level. It’s also easy to make. I made basil pesto with walnuts in a mortar and pestle for a late dinner last week as we had some basil that needed to be used. My boyfriend said it was the best pesto he had ever had. I don’t think it was but I took this as a sign that we’ve been buying too much pesto in jars recently. Time to return to the fresh stuff.

Basil pesto is known as pesto alla genovese in Italy which means pesto made in the style of Genoa, a port city in northern Italy. The pesto in Genoa is traditionally served with a short, twisted handmade pasta known as trofie and often mixed with potatoes and green beans. You could boil some peeled and chopped potatoes and green beans in the pasta water until tender and add them to the recipe below.

I don’t measure when I make pesto. My technique is more toss, crush, and taste so the numbers below are more loose guides than requirements to meet. I also like mine a little chunky and not too smooth. Pesto alla genovese is made with pine nuts, but I often make it with walnuts instead. Although in Liguria, you’re more likely to find the walnuts in similar style sauces like in this recipe for pasta with walnuts and marjoram. Some folks feel very strongly about pine nuts and many also like to toast them first. I like toasted pine nuts but I also like them raw. I like walnuts too.

What is your go-to pesto recipe?

Basil pesto

Serves 2

  • 1 ½ cups of basil leaves – a big bunch will do
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • ¼ cup pine nuts or walnuts, untoasted or if using pine nuts, you may want to toast in the oven first
  • Approximately 2 heaping tablespoons (a couple of handfuls?) of parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated
  • Coarse and fine salt
  • Olive oil
  • 250 grams pasta – I used gnocchi, but most pasta shapes will work. I like it with spaghetti or fusilli. Trofie is traditional.

Pesto can be made with a mortar and pestle, a knife and cutting board, or a blender.

Mortar and pestle
  1. Begin by crushing the garlic with a few grains of coarse salt in the mortar and pestle.
  2. Gradually add the basil leaves while continuing to crush.
  3. Gradually add the nuts while continuing to crush.
  4. Transfer to a large serving bowl and add about three tablespoons of olive oil while stirring and then stir in the cheese.
  5. Taste and add salt if needed.
  6. Cook the pasta.
  7. Drain the pasta and add to the serving bowl with the pesto and mix well.
  8. Serve.
Knife and cutting board
  1. Chop the garlic and a few grains of coarse salt on a cutting board.
  2. Gradually add the basil leaves while continuing to chop.
  3. Gradually add the pine nuts while continuing to chop.
  4. Transfer to a large serving bowl and add about three tablespoons of olive oil while stirring.
  5. Stir in the cheese.
  6. Taste and add salt if needed.
  7. Cook the pasta.
  8. Drain the pasta and add to the serving bowl with the pesto and mix well.
  9. Serve.
Blender
  1. Blend together the garlic, salt, basil, and nuts.
  2. Add the olive oil at a slow speed.
  3. Then add the cheese and blend and then transfer to a large serving bowl.
  4. Taste and add salt if needed.
  5. Cook the pasta.
  6. Drain the pasta and add to the serving bowl with the pesto and mix well.
  7. Serve.

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