Pesto alla Genovese

October 10, 2010

The sky is gray, and leaves are twirling down from their trees, rustling underfoot and reminding me that fall has arrived. This chilly air makes me crave hearty winter meals. Risotto with radicchio and smoked mozzarella… Chicken cacciatore over polenta… Fresh minestrone… But it’s not quite winter yet. Tomatoes and squash are still ripening in the garden, and the basil is just begging to be gathered before an early frost turns its gorgeous green leaves to brown. Yes, yes, yes, it’s PESTO TIME!

First, I’d like to share a little something that those Google folks did in honor of John Lennon’s birthday that made me smile just now. Doubt their video banner will still be active by the time I post this, so here’s the clip on you tube. Thanks, John, for the melodies and the memories.

~ ~ ~

Pesto alla Genovese

Caprese Appetizers

I love basil. It’s as if summer is giving me a kiss every time I smell its essence.

There must be hundreds of ways to use this herb, from a hint of fresh leaves in a salad, a garnish in an appetizer, or front and center as a pasta sauce.

Some form of Pesto has been around since Roman times, but the northern town of Genova and the surrounding Ligurian countryside lays claim to its most beloved form, Pesto alla Genovese. Now there are probably as many methods of making pesto as there are inhabitants in Genova (over a million), but I’m going to stick with the basics. First, a recipe with set measurements, using either with a blender, food processor, or a marble mortar and pestle, adapted from one of Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks. Second, the all’occhio method (eyeball) — as in you start with some of this, add some of that, and mix until it looks and tastes just right. I probably would have stuck with the set measurements had we not recently hosted visitors from Liguria. On their last morning here, Marilena took the time to share her pesto recipe with me, and I learned a couple of things I’ve never read in any recipe book. Adhering to my belief that recipes are best when they’ve evolved, I prefer the all’occhio method — as in: the measurements are only a guide, so tweak it until it suits your palate.

If you want set measurements, this recipe’s for you:

1 pound of spaghetti (or fettuccine) – Usually serves 4 to 5, but I’ve seen a party of two devour this dish in a flash, so servings depends on who’s eating.

2 cups lightly packed, fresh basil (rip larger leaves in half to measure accurately)

½ cup olive oil

2 T pine nuts

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 t salt

1/2 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 T freshly grated Pecorino Romano

4 T room-temperature butter

Mortar Method:
Add the basil, nuts, garlic and 1/3 of the salt to the mortar and crush it against the sides by turning the pestle in a circular motion. Keep crushing until the mix turns into a paste. Add the cheese and crush until evenly blended. Add the olive oil a spoonful at a time and continue mixing with a wooden spoon until all the oil has been added and the pesto is evenly blended.

Meanwhile, cook your pasta al dente. Strain and reserve 2 T of the water. Put the pasta back in the cooking pan, add the butter and stir to melt. Add the pest and stir. If it seems too dense, add the hot cooking water, a bit at a time, until it coats the pasta well.

Garnish with freshly grated cheese.

Blender/Processor Method:
Put in the basil, oil, nuts, garlic and salt and mix on high, occasionally pausing to scrape the sides. When evenly blended, pour into a bowl and mix in the cheeses by hand.

Meanwhile, cook your pasta al dente. Strain and reserve 2 T of the water. Put the pasta back in the cooking pan, add the butter and stir to melt. Add the pest and stir. If it seems too dense, add the hot cooking water, a bit at a time, until it coats the pasta well.

Garnish with freshly grated cheese.

All’Occhio Method

I call this method All’Occhio (eyeball) because Marilena doesn’t measure a single ingredient. She pinches salt and cups basil and streams olive oil until the mix looks and tastes just right. While she scooped pine nuts out of their bag, I waited with a tablespoon so I could at least offer you a starting point. (The garlic and salt, for instance, are 1/4 of what’s called for in the above recipe. Adjust to suit your taste.) And once Marilena cupped the quantity of basil she wanted to add in her hands, I had her dump it onto a food scale, which seemed more accurate than a measuring cup.

Marilena’s tips:

  1. Never wash basil leaves under running water. Sure, your faucet may rinse away some dust, but it will also wash away the flavor-producing oils. Marilena carefully wipes the leaves with a damp paper towel, taking care not to bruise them as that would release the oils. (If your paper towel turns green, you’re over-achieving.)
  2. True pesto is served crudo, or raw, so never allow your basil to overheat either when preparing the sauce or mixing it with the pasta. If you’re mixing by mortar and pestle, you don’t need to worry. However, if you’re using a blender or food processor, do not mix for more than 30 seconds at a time. Always lightly rinse your cooked pasta with cool (not cold) water.

The Recipe:

1 pound spaghetti (usually serves 4)

This sauce will make from 4 – 8 servings, depending on how drenched you like on your pasta. (Drizzle a coating of olive oil over leftover sauce and store in an airtight container int he refrigerator for up to 1 week.)

1/4 t fine salt

3 T pine nuts

1/2 clove fresh garlic

2/3 cup good olive oil

3 ounces cleaned basil leaves

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano

2 T melted butter

2 T cooking water from the pasta

Boil salted water for your pasta, and cook al dente. Meanwhile, make your sauce.

Crush garlic and blend in food processor with the salt, pine nuts, and a couple of tablespoons of oil until it is nearly a paste. Do not worry about overheating.

Add 1/4 of your basil to the garlic paste. As you start to blend, drizzle in just enough oil to keep the mix moving. Do not mix for more than 30 seconds at a time, and rest for 15 seconds between blending.

Once the mix starts to swirl,  add another clump of basil and a bit more olive oil. Continue intervals of adding basil and a bit of olive oil until all the basil is added. Only fine chunks of basil should still be visible in the mix. Add approximately 1/2 cup of grated cheese and mix until just blended. (If you’re planning on freezing some of the sauce, wait to add the cheese until you’re tossing everything in the serving dish.)

Pour melted butter into your serving dish, add 2 tablespoons of pesto per serving, and mix.

When your spaghetti is al dente, scoop out a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water, and then strain the pasta. Rinse briefly with cool (not cold) water to cool the pasta and to keep the basil from “cooking.” Toss with the sauce in the dish. (Don’t forget to add the appropriate ratio of cheese if you haven’t already.) If necessary, add a bit of the cooking water at a time until the sauce evenly coasts the spaghetti.

Serve with a light side dish such as a selection of fresh, sliced tomatoes.

Mamma's Pomodori


Pesto is also great on pizza, potato gnocchi, drizzled on bruschette, or eaten straight off the spoon. Marilena also shared another typical Ligurian pasta and pesto recipe, which I have yet to try:

6 – 8 ounces fresh green beans

3 medium or 6 small red potatoes cut into 1/2″ cubes (app. 1 cup when cubed)

1 pound trenette (flat pasta made without eggs)

1 batch pesto sauce

Wash the green beans, and break into 1 inch sections. Fill a pasta pot with enough cold water to boil your pasta, add the green beans, and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, peel your potatoes and chop into 1/2″ cubes. After the beans have boiled for 2 or 3 minutes, salt the water as you usually do for pasta, add the pasta and and the potatoes and boil until the trenette are al dente. Save a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water, strain the pasta, beans, and potatoes, and mix with butter and pesto in your serving dish as described above.


Storing Pesto

Place extra sauce in a small glass (preferable) or plastic airtight container. Top with a drizzle of olive oil and store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Freezing Pesto
Before adding the cheese or butter, freeze in either:

  • portion-size Ziplocks, making sure to force all the extra air out of the bag. Defrost without opening the Ziplock (so it won’t turn brown). Speed up the defrosting by soaking the ziplock in lukewarm water.
  • cubes by placing 2 -4 tablespoons in each section an ice tray. Top with a drizzle of olive oil and freeze. Store frozen cubes in Ziplock bags. When it’s time to use, consider 2 tablespoons for each serving of pasta (100 – 125 grams, or app. 1/5 to 1/4 pound).

Stir in the cheese at the last minute and toss with buttered pasta.

If you’d like to save extra basil without making it into pesto, click on the pizza link above in Variations for my preferred method.

Buon Appetito ~

Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!

August 29, 2010

Here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the basil is lush and fragrant, and sun-ripe tomatoes are hanging like jewels on their vines.  The cool mornings remind me that fall is just around the corner and I’d better enjoy these warm days and the garden’s bounty while they’re still here.

Might be “enjoying” the warm days too much… we spent the last week installing a thousand or so square feet of gravel pathway between home and shop.  Add wine to the tired body in the evening, and not much energy is left for posting blogs (yes, Saturday did pass without a post, if anyone’s counting). Not much energy for cooking either, but, as I walk past the garden on our new path, those ripe tomatoes are calling, “Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!”

If I were still living in Italy, I probably never would have attempted homemade pizza as there seems to be a pizzaiolo and a wood-fired oven just around every corner. There are few places in America where this is true, and our little corner of rural Oregon is not one of them.

Starting completely from scratch, making both your dough and sauce, pizza can be quite an endeavor. It’s unlikely that I would make the time to do it often. Since pizza is one of my husband’s favorites, I’ve found ways to simplify the process.

  1. Most important step is cooking your pizza on the barbecue. Few home kitchens are equipped with an oven capable of baking a pizza quickly. A well-heated barbecue can do it in 6 minutes, almost quick enough to keep up with Stefano’s appetite. And when he’s on his best behavior, it’s even enough to keep up with a small party. Until we build ourselves a wood-fired pizza oven, barbecued pizza is the way to go.
  2. You will need a pizza stone. Although store-bought pizza stones will work, they’re a little thin and a barbecue’s intense bottom heat may overheat the stone. In the past, when cooking with the stones, I kept two on hand so I could switch stones when the other became too hot. These days, I use my homemade pizza stone made from firebricks. I’ve had a few inquiries on this, so I’ll make it a separate post where you can find the information.
  3. Have the dough on hand. A few weeks back, I posted the recipe for Chewy Italian Bread — which is what I use for pizza dough. Included in that post were instructions on how to make more than one batch of dough at a time. Each “loaf” of dough will make three 12″ to 14″ pizzas, depending on how thin you roll the crust. Allow one refrigerated “loaf” to come to room temperature, and you can have barbecued pizza on the table in 30 minutes. Note: When I have time, I prefer to make pizzas out of a “fresh” loaf of dough (rather than a previously made refrigerated loaf) because it’s more willing to roll out to a thinner crust. If I know ahead of time I’m making pizza, I’ll turn a batch of biga into a batch of dough and let it sit in a covered bowl for 2 to even 8 hours until I’m ready.
  4. Get creative with the toppings.
  • Use fresh tomatoes and make a 5 minute quick sauce (recipe below).
  • Next time you’re cooking tomato sauce for pasta, make a little extra and set it aside for pizzas.
  • Ditto for bechamel/white sauce. (Bechamel, fresh prosciutto and grilled zucchini is a personal favorite!)
  • If you’re sauteing mushrooms, make an extra cup and freeze them.
  • Grill up an extra zucchini.
  • Skip the sauce altogether and make one of the pizze in bianco (white pizzas) below.
  • Stock your refrigerator and cupboards with topping like olives, artichoke hearts, anchovies…

Pizza dough basics:

  • Have your dough at room temperature, whether it’s homemade fresh, refrigerated, or store-bought, and flatten a softball-sized lump onto a floured board.
  • Although I’ve done my share of dough flipping, just rolling it out keeps the kitchen a little cleaner (and the ceiling).
  • Keep your dough and board well floured, and turn the dough often so you don’t end up prying it off the table with a spatula.
  • Roll it out into a shape that works with your pizza stone. Make it as thin (or thick) as you like, just make sure that it’s not so thin that it won’t support the weight of its toppings as you slide it from pizza peel (or cutting board) onto your pizza stone.
  • Spread a thin layer of cornmeal on the pizza peel to keep your dough from sticking.
  • ALWAYS wait to put your toppings on until after you have transferred from your workspace to your pizza peel.
  • The longer you leave a topped pizza on the peel, the harder it is to get off. And, yes, I know from experience that it is possible to reach a point where it will not come off in one piece.
  • When transferring the pizza from peel to stone, give it a little side-to-side shake first. Use your spatula to loosen any areas that stick BEFORE you try to slide it off, and keep the spatula handy in case you missed a spot.

Ready for Toppings

Pizza In Bianco 1

One of my favorite pizza toppings is a simple mix of

  • fresh mozzarella
  • fresh basil
  • olive oil
  • salt

If your fresh mozzarella is packaged in water, you’ll need to let it drain and dry for a few hours.

Mix chopped basil and cubed mozzarella in a dish, pour at least a couple of tablespoons of olive oil on top and smush a bit. Spread on the pizza (this one was a little heavy on the cheese and it ran off the sides when baking). Salt to taste just before serving.

Ready for the Barbecue

Six minutes later…

Ready to Devour

Kitchen Tip – Saving Basil

In Italy, you can purchase confections of cubed, frozen parsley, and I always thought this was a great alternative when fresh herbs weren’t on hand. I brought the practice home with me. Whenever I pick parsley, I pick a bit extra, chop  it up, and stick it in a Ziplock in the freezer.

Basil is a different story. Who wants brown flecks of defrosted basil on a pizza? The trick is to keep the cut edges of the basil from being exposed to the air for too long. As with the parsley, when I gather fresh basil, I gather as much as I can, chop it up, set aside what I need for my current dish, and stuff the rest into an ice cube tray I keep just for this purpose. Then I fill the cubes with just enough olive oil to cover the basil (pushing the basil down into the oil with a small spoon once it’s moistened with oil helps), and freeze. Store the frozen cubes in a Ziplock. In winter, it’s the next best thing to fresh basil. Use the cubes in pasta sauces, soups, pizza, even Pesto! If necessary, they can be defrosted in the microwave on a low setting, and any extra oil (is there such a thing?) can be drained off and used for other dishes.

Tray of Basil Ready for the Freezer

Frozen Cubes Ready to Use

Sal’s White Pizza

  • garlic
  • olive oil
  • parsley
  • fresh Parmesan cheese

Another one of my favorite white pizzas is this simple “garlic bread” pizza. It’s been almost 20 years since I worked for anyone besides myself, but my last job was waiting table in an Italian pizzeria in Glenwood, CA, ( a blip on Park Boulevard between Oakland and Montclair in the east bay). Sal’s parlor was always packed. More than an appetizer, Sal served this yummy creation as an “appeaser” while patrons waited for their entrees.

Mix a tablespoon or so of finely chopped garlic with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl, squishing the garlic a bit with the back of the spoon to release its flavors. Pour onto your dough and use the back of the spoon to spread it evenly. Bake until lightly browned and bubbly. Sprinkle with chopped, fresh parsley and fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Salt to taste

Sal's Garlic Bread Pizza

Pizza Margherita

A simple pizza, named after a princess called Daisy.

  • tomato
  • garlic
  • basil
  • mozzarella

I’ve consumed more than my share of simple tomato sauces on pasta and pizza over the years, but these days I just don’t care much for most tomato sauces unless they’re either made from barely-cooked fresh tomatoes or  if they’re sporca — dirty — as our friend Andrea would say — filled with loads of yumminess like olives and capers and bacon.

The trick to make a 5-minute tomato sauce is to start with fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, chop your tomatoes into half-inch cubes, and strain all their water away before tossing them into the pan. (The small size of these pieces makes in unnecessary to remove the tomato peels.)

For one 12″ – 14″ pizza:

Saute slices of fresh garlic in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Strain 3 -4 chopped, plum tomatoes, giving them an extra squeeze as you transfer them from colander to pan. Saute on medium to medium-high. The heating tomatoes will generate some water — don’t cook any longer than necessary to evaporate that liquid. Your tomatoes will start to lose their shape, but should not be cooked long enough to lose their fresh-tomato color.

Spoon onto a prepared pizza dough and spread with the back of a spoon. Add a few slices of fresh mozzarella, chopped basil to taste, and get it on the barbecue.

Margherita Ready for the Grill

Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!

And there you have it. Three pizzas start to finish in 30 minutes. Since we were eating the first as the second and third cooked, after 15 more minutes all that was left were the dishes and the last sips of wine.

Now, if only I could figure out how to write one of the posts so quickly!!!

Buon appetito ~