I never gave much thought to the seasonality of fresh produce. I grew up eating seasonally both at home in Maryland and at the homes of my paternal grandparents, and great-aunts in Italy. There was a small garden in the back yard in Maryland, and an enormous garden in my paternal Nonna’s back yard in northern Italy, complete with fruit trees and a chicken coop. For my maternal great-aunts in Rome, apartment living only gave them room for a few pots of flowers and herbs on the balcony, but they shopped for the produce from a nearby mercato daily and it often came from a local garden. As soon as I got on the plane to leave for our month-long summer vacation to Italy, I knew I would soon be eating my Nonna Ada’s fried zucchini flowers and plucking an afternoon snack from her apricot trees. In Rome, I knew my Zia Franca would make her baked rice-stuffed tomatoes scented with fresh basil for a light and satisfying summer lunch. Once I started cooking for me and Peter, it was easy knowing which ingredients were the best every season despite American grocery stores always selling in-season and out-of-season produce side-by-side. Eating seasonally was always a way of life in my family, but something I’ve never taken for granted. For me, the scent of basil is the scent of summer. Of course, buying it in a grocery store packaged in a plastic bag is far less memorable than buying it at a bustling, colorful Italian open-air market, but it’s fresh and abundant, and I’ll gladly buy it to make my yearly batch of pesto Genovese.
Pesto Genovese originated in the port city of Genova which is also the capital city of the north-west region of Liguria. This narrow, crescent-shaped coastal region is home to the elegant Italian Riviera and its rugged terrain overlooks the Ligurian Sea. The year-round mild climate of Liguria is ideal for growing basilico Genovese, a variety of basil that has small leaves, is intensely fragrant, and is cultivated in terraced greenhouses, a growing tradition that is at least a century old. The basil carries Italy’s DOP designation, Denominazione di Origine Protetta (protected designation of origin), which means the herb grows in a specific geographic area and according to strict cultivation and harvesting criteria. In Italy, pesto Genovese itself also carries the DOP designation, but only if the sauce is made with the traditional ingredients of basilico Genovese, fresh garlic, pine nuts, coarse sea salt, extra-virgin olive oil, and a blend of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Fiore Sardo cheeses.
Pesto Genovese is traditionally made in a mortar and pestle. Purists maintain that if pesto Genovese isn’t made in a mortar and pestle, it isn’t real pesto Genovese. Technically, they are correct–the word pesto is derived from the verb pestare, which means to pound or grind, as you do to ingredients in a mortar. If you own a mortar and pestle, you can certainly take pleasure in making pesto Genovese the traditional way, but it comes out just as successfully using a food processor. I’m all for tradition and I consider myself (mostly) a purist when it comes to Italian recipes especially, but I much prefer the speed and efficiency of making pesto Genovese in the food processor.
Despite the debate on preparation methods, Italian cooks all agree that pesto Genovese should never be cooked. It is a raw sauce and its strict traditional use is to dress pasta. Once again, purists will argue that there are only certain types of pasta to pair with pesto Genovese: there are trofie, a short, thin, delicately twisted shape; trenette, a long, thin shape similar in thickness to linguine (the most traditional shape used with pesto Genovese); and picagge, a cross between fettuccine and tagliatelle typically made with borage or spinach, and sometimes with chestnut and whole wheat flour. I managed to find a box of trofie on a trip to New York City last year, but these three shapes are generally hard to find outside of Italy (unless you make them yourself or live in a city with a well-stocked Italian market), so linguine, spaghetti, gemelli, or fusilli are also good choices (just don’t tell a Genovese). Two other accepted uses for pesto Genovese are to dress boiled potatoes and green beans (often cooked and served together with pasta), and to sauce potato gnocchi.
While most recipes for pesto Genovese this side of the Ligurian Sea would not be considered “true” pesto Genovese by purists, it’s still entirely possible to come close to the real deal by respecting the seasonality of fresh basil, honoring tradition by using the correct ingredients, and learning the proper technique for making the recipe. By doing these things, you’ll be cooking exactly like an Italian no matter where you live.
Pesto freezes very well, but keep in mind that if you plan on freezing it, omit the cheese and add it only when you are ready to use the pesto. Use the ingredient measurements more as a guideline depending on the quantity of basil you are using.
8 cups loosely packed basil leaves
¼ cup pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, peeled and trimmed of tough ends
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (more if necessary)
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
¼ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Pecorino Fiore Sardo
Remove the basil leaves from the stems and wash them in cold water. Spin the leaves dry in a salad spinner and lay them on a clean dish towel to air-dry for 20 minutes. Blot away any remaining moisture using paper towels. Set aside.
Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Toast the pine nuts in the dry skillet tossing continuously, until the pine nuts are light golden brown and fragrant. Transfer the nuts to a plate to cool completely.
Place the basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse a few times to coarsely chop all the ingredients. With the machine running, stream the olive oil through the feed tube until the pesto is smooth and thick in consistency (it should not be gloppy or runny). Scrape down the sides of the bowl to ensure all the ingredients are evenly incorporated.
If you will be using the pesto immediately: Transfer the pesto into a serving bowl large enough to accommodate the amount of pasta you are making and stir in the cheeses. As the pasta finishes cooking, ladle out about ½ cup of the hot pasta water into a heat-proof measuring cup and set it aside. Drain the pasta through a colander, add it to the serving bowl, and toss to coat the pasta evenly with the pesto. If the sauce seems too thick, dribble in small amounts of the pasta cooking water to thin the sauce gradually. It should take on a creamy consistency and cling to the pasta evenly.
Storage: If you will not be using the pesto right away, transfer it into freezer-safe containers and smooth the top surface with a spatula. Cover the top completely with a thin layer of olive oil and close the container tightly. Refrigerate and use within 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months. You can also transfer the pesto sauce into an ice cube tray if you want to have smaller portions. Once the pesto cubes have solidified, pop them out and transfer them into a freezer-safe zip bag and return to the freezer.