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Quick pesto

for sure, an italian friend related that pesto is a lot like pasta sauce...every cook had her/his own variations and would adapt depending on whatever was available at the time!
I mean pesto just means ground in a mortar/pestle. Can technically be anything ingredients wise.

I think the pesto we all reference is Genovese style...?
 

TexLaw

Fussy Evil Genius
Contributor
I mean pesto just means ground in a mortar/pestle. Can technically be anything ingredients wise.

I think the pesto we all reference is Genovese style...?
"Pesto" actually comes from the Italian verb pestare, "to crush" or "to pound." Specifically, it's the first person present. If you were pounding away with your mortar and pestle and wanted to tell someone what you were up to, you'd say "io pesto."

You are correct that the "pesto" we keep talking about it is the Genovese version (or, at least, one version found in Genoa and other parts of Liguria). However, although I can't recall who I heard say it, but he said "there's 'pesto,' and then there's 'Pesto.'" The classic Pesto alla Genovese often is considered the original version of the stuff. What started it all.

But "pesto" does not just mean anything ground with a mortar and pestle. You wouldn't crush up your peppercorns in there and call it "pesto." You're talking about a sauce that's made (and there is some argument here) from some flavorful, vegetable something (typically some herb or other flavorful leaf), oily nuts, garlic, and salty, hard cheese. The star of the show is . . . well, . . . there isn't one. It about all the flavors making all the other flavors better. From there, you can pretty much go bananas, at least when you are talking about something other than the classic.

I'm sure we've all seen all manner of variations from the classic. Some use spinach, arugula, rapini, kale, or even broccoli. Some are made with sundried tomatoes, capers, roasted red pepper, peas, mushrooms, bacon, or even anchovies or seaweed. Some use almonds, pecans, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, dried chickpeas, or even peanuts. All sorts of oils and cheeses and zests can make it in there. I've had a "Southwest Pesto" that was made with green chiles, pepper jack cheese, pine nuts (from pinon pines), garlic, and some kind of oil (probably nothing special), and it was mighty good. I've even seen acids (citrus or vinegar) make their way in the mix, but I find that's more a riff on chimichurri. I won't go into the the "avocado pesto" I had that was basically bad guacamole with pecans in it.

I've had a discussion about variations with a real, honest-to-goodness Ligurian nonna, and she could not have been more clear with regard to Pesto alla Genovese. You probably add a little olive oil, and maybe you add a little salt. A food processor "is what the kids do, but they spend more time cleaning it then they would making it the right way." According to her, that's about as far as you can take the classic and still call it Pesto alla Genovese. She set me good and straight when I mentioned adding lemon juice, as I've seen in some recipes. "You keep that out of the pesto! That is not pesto!" I believed her (although I often like a sprinkle of lemon juice on a pesto).

Frankly, she was not too keen on the idea of "pesto" being anything but the classic. She was willing to concede that there are other traditional pestos in different areas (not the least of which is the pistou in Provence, pretty much down the road from Liguria). Those versions may not be her classic "pesto," but she was okay with that because those folks used what they had around them, stuck to the original formula, and kept "the spirit" of what it was. "This is the natural evolution. This is good." I sometimes wonder what she would have thought about that Southwest Pesto, but our conversation occurred long before I had it.

She was jaded about so much she had seen in America, though, because it was all about marketing and "stole" the idea of what pesto is. Above all, pesto "is fresh," and the best pesto "is from the home." She had been in America long enough to see supermarket pasta sauce offerings start to go far beyond Ragu, but I think the one that really broke her heart was pesto. Almost no one did it right where we were. Everything, especially the ones from the store, was "dull and terrible" and "like paste." She said something like "pesto from a jar is not pesto. It is from a jar. It is no better than pasta from a jar. Do you want your Thanksgiving turkey from a jar?!?"

Believe it or not, that whole conversation occurred because she was a patient of mine while I was a nurse aide in a hospital over a Summer in 1991 or 1992. I happened to mention that I had some pasta with pesto for lunch in the hospital cafeteria. She had earlier told me that she was from around Genoa, so I thought she might like it. Whoa, did I need to buckle up! She gave me her mind on the subject, and I'm glad she did. She made some excellent points that, to some extent, started shaping my ideas about food and definitions and what both mean to folks. All this may have happened a long time ago, but I doubt I'll ever forget it.
 
Great story @TexLaw .

Good catch on not specifying sauces rather than just anything pounded. I just wanted to be clear that people shouldn't limit their pestos to just the genovese style.

Macadamia nuts are a really cool sub. Red peppers and parsley makes a really nice base. Sardines can really pump up the flavor department.

But like the nonna said, keep it fresh.
 
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