Nothing beats a classic pesto… it’s the best thing you can do with summer basil! When pasta cravings hit, look no further.
Basil pesto is simple, and as often is the case with simple recipes, the ingredients matter immensely!
I will never forget years ago chatting with a friend who was disappointed in her homemade pesto, saying that it lacked flavor. She said, “Why use pine nuts anyway? They are virtually flavorless.”
That evening, we talked about the important elements of a well-executed pesto, and realized the recipe she had followed was flawed. It hadn’t instructed her to toast the pine nuts, which is perhaps the most important part of this classic sauce. When pine nuts are toasted, their sugars become caramelized and the nuttiness is increased tenfold. The resulting flavor is almost night and day.
Another critical ingredient is the cheese. And it was another miss in that recipe. For excellent pesto, splurge on a hunk of real parmigiano reggiano and grate it yourself. Pre-grated cheese will lack flavor intensity, and often contains an anti-caking agent that sucks out moisture.
Finally, a good quality extra virgin olive oil is a must. Herbaceous and grassy, EVOO unites the other ingredients in perfect harmony. When pesto is done right, it is remarkable, bursting with all of the best flavors of Italy.
Do I ever buy jarred pesto? Sure. It has a place in my pantry. I use it for slathering on sandwiches or adding a touch of flavor to soups. But when I really want to savor all that basil pesto can be, glistening over perfectly al dente noodles, homemade is the ONLY way to go.
If you care to have a bright green color for your pesto, blanch the basil in simmering water for a few seconds, then plunge it in an ice bath. Before blending it in the food processor, squeeze out as much water as you can. For me, I don’t bother with this step – I’m happy with a more rustic look.
A note on noodles: I enjoy making my own pasta, and a great shape for pesto is fazzoletti, which means, “little handkerchief.” As many home cooks do not have the time, energy or inclination to make fresh pasta, a great substitute is using lasagne noodles, breaking them roughly into triangular shapes. For this recipe, this is method that I call for, which means you can have dinner on the table in 20 minutes. Alternatively, if you have access to good quality fresh store-bought pasta, a thick pappardelle noodle will also be excellent with the pesto.
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Basil Pesto with Broken Lasagne
- 2 cups basil leaves loosely packed, (50 grams) washed and spun dry
- ¼ cup pine nuts
- 2 small garlic cloves
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt plus 2 tablespoons for the pasta water
- ¼ cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano plus extra for serving
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pound lasagne noodles not no-boil, broken into large triangles
- Begin by bringing your water to a boil for the pasta. I suggest 5 quarts of water in a large stock pot for a pound of pasta. Add two tablespoons of kosher salt to season the cooking water, then turn the heat to low and cover the pot to keep it warm. Be careful of adding the salt to the water if it is vigorously boiling as it will bubble over. Either add it before it comes to a boil, or turn off the heat to add the salt.
- Place the pine nuts in a medium skillet over medium heat. Cook them, shaking the pan, until they become a medium golden color. It should take about 6 minutes. They can burn quickly, so keep a close eye on them.
- Crush the garlic with the side of a large chef's knife and place it in your food processor. Add the pine nuts, it’s okay if they are still a bit warm, and the salt. Process, scraping down the sides two or three times, until a chunky paste forms. Add the basil next and process again, scraping the sides as necessary, until it is mostly broken down. Finally add the cheese and process for another few seconds to incorporate.
- With the motor running, pour in the olive oil in a thin stream. Let the machine continue to run until the mixture is very creamy and smooth, at least a minute.
- Return your pot of water to a boil and add the noodles, cooking them until they are al dente. Scoop out a cup of pasta water, then drain the noodles and return them to the pot. Add the pesto to the pot with the noodles, then pour a little of the reserved pasta water (about ¼ cup) into the food processor, sloshing it around to get any bits stuck to the vessel, then pour that into the pasta. Stir over the lowest heat and taste for seasoning. It may need a touch more salt. Add a bit more pasta water to thin out the sauce if needed. It should be loose and creamy. If you add too much water, you can always cook it down, so don’t worry too much about the exact right amount. I like a thinner sauce that the noodles can slide around in and I can sop up with a piece of crusty bread, but if you prefer a thicker pesto then don’t add as much water.
- Serve the pasta hot, passing extra cheese at the table.