Monday, April 7, 2014

Culinary History: Pesto

It’s funny that I saved pesto until now, because back when I used to have my own catering business I had an occasional blog on my website and one of my earliest posts was called, “What the hell is pesto?” That post was the inspiration for this blog.  Unfortunately, when I shut down my site I didn’t keep any of my work and that post has been lost.  So even though I’ve written this before, this is fresh copy.  Anyway, we all know what pesto is: that green goodness that is amazing on pasta or bruschetta or a sandwich.  But did you know that original pesto has virtually nothing in common with the pesto that immediately comes to mind.  So what was it like originally? How has it evolved? And what new places can we take it?

What’s interesting is the name pesto has more to do with how it was originally made than what is in it.  It means, to pound and it share it’s origin with the tool that would have been used to create it, a mortar and pestle.  What is interesting is that before it was called pesto a similar latin dish, moretum, also gets its name from this tool. This progenitor of pesto was crushed hard cheese, garlic, and herbs.  Basil originates in India, and would have been brought and then cultivated in Mediterranean countries from the famous spice routes.  In both Genoa and Provence it evolved to include specifically basil and olive oil, but the Genovese use pine nuts, whereas the Provencal do not.  This combination of basil, garlic, parmesan, oil, and pine nuts, is what most people think of when they think of Pesto, but it should be called a Genovese pesto.   

I think pesto should be defined as a puree of ingredients that include oil, herbs, garlic, and cheese.  Exactly what herbs are used or what additional ingredients can be added is totally up to you.  But if you do want to make a classic Genovese pesto, you can’t go wrong with this recipe:

Genovese Pesto on Cheese Ravioli
- ¼ cup toasted pine nuts
- 3 cloves of garlic toasted until spotty brown
- 2 cups of packed basil leaves, bruised with a meat tenderizer or rolling pin
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
- salt to taste
- 1 ½ lbs frozen or fresh cheese ravioli, boiled until done.

1. Mince the nuts, garlic, and basil in a food processor.  Scrape down the sides of the food processor bowl.  With the machine running slowly pour in the oil until the pesto is uniformly smooth.  Mix in the cheese and salt to taste by hand. Serve over ravioli.

My favorite thing about pesto is that it is loaded with flavor, but takes just minutes to make.  Toasting the garlic takes some of the aggressiveness out it, letting you use more, but without the raw flavor.  Toasting the pine nuts (and pretty much all nuts when cooking) gives them an even nuttier flavor.  Bruising the basil first helps it release its oils.

Because the name is vague, many variations on pesto has sprung up in Italy, especially Pesto Rosso from Sicily, which uses Tomatoes and almonds and Pesto alla Calabrese which uses grilled bell peppers.  However, outside of Italy and France, pesto has traveled to Germany, Argentina, Peru, and Singapore.  Even though it is also Italian, Sicilian Trapanese pesto is so delicious it is absolutely worth including.

Sicilian Trapanese Pesto on Spaghetti
- ¼ cup toasted slivered almonds
- 12 oz. grape tomatoes
- ½ cup basil leaves (bruised with a mallet or rolling pin)
- 2 cloves garlic, toasted
- 1 pepperoncini
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 oz. parmesan cheese, grated
- 1 lb spaghetti, cooked

1. Food Process the almonds, tomatoes, basil, garlic, and pepperoncini.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  With the machine running, slowly add the oil until thoroughly combined.  Stir in the parmesan cheese and and toss with the spaghetti.

This pesto is a little bit less assertive than a genovese pesto, but the inclusion of the fresh tomatoes and the pepperoncini gives it a great tanginess and a little heat.


Since there are so many kinds of pesto, I wanted to experiment with a variation that would be great on something other than pasta or bruschetta.  So I had an idea inspired by the great American Steakhouses and made a nice mushroom pesto.

Thick Strip Steaks with Mushroom Pesto
8 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
3 cloves garlic
1 small shallot, sliced
½ oz. dried porcini mushrooms rehydrated in ½ cup boiling water for at least 5 minutes
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup packed parsley leaves
½ cup extra virgin olive oil plus a little extra
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese.
2 1 ½ - 1 ¾ inch thick strip steaks, cut in half widthwise, patted dry, and seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.

1. Put the steaks on a metal rack set over a baking sheet and cook at 275 degrees (20 minutes for rare, 25 minutes for medium rare, 30 minutes for medium).  Near the end of cook time put a heavy bottom skillet over high heat until very hot.
2. While the steaks cook, toss the white mushrooms, garlic, and shallot in a little oil oil and roast at 450 degrees, stirring occasionally and removing each ingredient as it gets golden brown
3. Puree the white mushrooms, garlic, shallot, porcini mushrooms and liquid, thyme, and parsley in a food processor.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  With the machine running add the olive oil until thoroughly combined.  Gently stir in the parmesan cheese.
4. Sear the steaks on each of it’s six sides until well-browned.  Let rest for 5 minutes.  Top with some of the pesto and serve.

This one is a no-brainer: Mushrooms, garlic, onions, thyme, and parsley on a perfectly cooked steak.  Don’t leave out or substitute the dried porcinis though, the pesto surprisingly lacks mushroom flavor without it. Regarding this method for cooking steaks, though it takes a bit longer, you end up with a steak that is how you like it all the way through not just in the middle.

For my final variation, I decided to stick with topping a piece of meat with a pesto, but finally decided to shift out of Italy and into Africa.  I took the recipe for chermoula, and added some sesame seeds to make a delightful pesto that went great on nice sauteed piece of fish.

Panko Breaded Whitefish Sandwiches with Sesame Chermoula Pesto
- 1 bunch of cilantro, stems cut off
- juice of ½ a lemon
- 3 cloves of garlic, toasted until golden brown
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. paprika
- ¼ cup sesame seeds
- ½ cup. extra virgin olive oil
- 2 lbs. whitefish fillets, cut into sandwich sized pieces
- flour
- 2 eggs
- panko
- sandwich rolls
- any desired condiments (lettuce, tomato, pickle, etc.)

1. Salt the fish fillets to taste.  Whisk eggs in a shallow pan. Dredge in fish in flour, then eggs, then panko.  Saute in hot oil over medium high heat until golden brown on each side
2. Puree cilantro, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, paprika, sesame seeds, and olive oil in a blender until as smooth as possible.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve on fish fillets and make sandwiches..

There are so many other great pesto recipes out there.  I’ve seen it made with orange zest, green olives, fennel, and others.  So what about you? Have you ever done any pestos that are outside of the norm?  Are you inspired to try something new? Let me know if you have any good ideas.


  1. Woah, that sesame pesto looks incredible!

    1. It was awesome, though in original attempt I used a food processor instead of a blender and the sesame seeds didn't get chopped up how I wanted. Still good, just not quite the right texture. A good blender should do the trick, like making your own hummus.