How to Make the Delicious Pesto Sauce – Full Recipe + Tips

One of the most delicious, lightest and fresh recipes in Italy, loved and cherished by locals and tourists alike is the green pesto sauce. Originally from Liguria, even though it’s called “pesto genovese” (Genoa’s pesto), you can find this traditional Italian recipe in the restaurants of pretty much every region and of course everywhere in Liguria together with the famous farinata street food.

Ingredients for the Pesto Sauce for 4 People

  • 400 gr of pasta. Fresh or dry, spaghetti or short, most types of pasta are a good match for the pest sauce.
  • 50 g of basil. It should be noted that the best basil for pesto is Genoese basil, the one with small leaves. Obviously, if you can’t find it, that’s fine, your pesto will still be delicious. But if you have the option, do pick this one because the result will be closer to the Italian food. Also, the basil should be young and fresh, don’t even think of using the dried herb as that would just not be pesto. On a related note, basil is quite easy to plant and take care of but unfortunately, it’s very seasonal and lasts only in summer. Unless you are a great plant caretaker and are able to keep it alive in winter, too, maybe inside the house.
  • 1 tbsp of pine nuts. Better if from Italy or the Mediterranean region. If you can’t find these, at least make sure they are organic and fresh. Or you can also replace the pine nuts with walnuts or almonds if you so wish. This will make the pesto less delicate, and a stronger taste but still nice.
  • 8 tbsp of olive oil. This can be to taste. If you want, you can use even 10 tbsp, maybe adding the extra two once you start blending in case teh sauce is not fluid enough.
  • 60 gr of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano. This needs to be the original, forget copies and fakes. If you also have some Sardinian Pecorino cheese, you can do 50 gr of Parmigiano and 20 of Pecorino. I’m perfectly aware that this will make Genoese and Liguria natives or pesto purists cringe, but vegans can also make pesto by replacing the Parmigiano with nutritional yeast.
  • 1 or 2 cloves of garlic. This is very much to taste and whether you can digest it or not. As a little tip if garlic remains heavy on your stomach, since this sauce is raw, I suggest removing the interior sprout of the garlic before blending it. This will make it lighter.
  • 8 to 10 gr of salt. Salt is very much to taste, maybe you want to try it as you go, but remember that pesto shouldn’t be too salty.
Image: Pesto pasta sauce ingredients

Online, you can find many different ways of making pesto. I’m not a purist and I’m not a great chef either, so I like to try always different flavors and dishes. Once you are confident with the traditional pesto sauce recipe, give your own touch to it. Some other options can be replacing the pine nuts with almonds or cashew nuts, or even a mix of the two. I even tried it with pistachio and it was delicious. Together with the basil, try blending a few oil sundried tomatoes, or some zucchini quickly stir-fried with garlic, or even some grilled bell peppers or eggplants.

Possibilities are endless, just let your imagination flow. You are also allowed to call it pesto, maybe not with someone from Genoa, but with less involved people you can go wild!

Instructions for the Pesto Sauce

There are mainly two ways to make pesto: one is the traditional way and one is a fast way, easy and perfect for busy professionals. Let’s start with the latter: place all the ingredients in a high-speed blender and switch on, it will be ready in a minute. To keep the bright green color of the basil, add two ice cubes. Of course, this is the easiest and fastest way, but it does sacrifice some flavor especially because of the heat produced but the blades.

Now, let’s get on with the traditional way, the one that requires lots of love, patience, and arm strength.

  • Wash the basil. Very gently otherwise it darkens, and then dry it on a dish cloth.
  • Grind. Take your mortar, either in marble or wood, and start grinding the garlic, some salt and the pine nuts. Gradually, add the basil and keep grinding with your pestle, which should be wooden.
  • Add the cheese. When all the ingredients have reached a fluid texture, add the parmigiano cheese and, if you have it, also the Sardinian pecorino, and start mixing.
  • Add the oil. This is the last step, but you should proceed slowly to make sure you form a creamy texture. Here you can decide if you wish to add more oil or a few drops of water instead if you want it lighter.

Covered in oil, you can keep your pesto in the fridge for a couple of days.

Image: Italian pesto sauce

The Best Pasta for the Pesto Sauce

The first pasta that comes to mind is fresh, twisted trofie, but pesto goes perfectly with so many types. Use it with spaghetti, penne, tagliatelle whether it’s fresh or dried pasta.To make it a heartier meal, when in season you can add some green beans or some boiled potatoes to your traditional basil pesto. I tried both versions and they combine perfectly.

As a final tip, before draining your pasta, take out half a glass of cooking water and add it to your dish to better blend your sauce with the pasta.

Image: Pesto tagliatelle in Genoa, Italy

How do Italians eat pesto?

Did you think there was only one way to use pesto? Not quite. Its delicate and fresh flavor makes it a versatile sauce that finds different purposes in the kitchen. Here are some.

  • Season your pasta. This is the first and most obvious one. You can use it as it is or add some touch like sun-dried tomatoes, lemon zest, or another sprinkle of parmesan.
  • Add it to your soup. A few spoons of pesto give such a fresh kick to your soups, whether they are spice-rich or not. Give this a try!
  • Spread on your bread. And then add the toppings of your choice such as fresh or dried tomatoes, avocado, hummus, grilled veggies and anything you can think of. It’s also very nice spread on a piadina as part of the filling.
  • Season your salad. By salad, I don’t mean only lettuce. If you are making a hearty grains and beans salad, seasoning it with pesto makes it very flavourful.
  • Add it to your lasagna. Why not try it with your veggie lasagna? Pesto blends perfectly with so many veggies that spreading it on your lasagna can only make it a fantastic summer dish.

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