Friday, August 27, 2010

Hand-Cut Pesto

Two summers ago, I discovered the magic of hand-cut pesto. I had just moved back to Brooklyn from Baltimore and I was visiting Matt in Baltimore for the weekend.  We had made a trip to the Waverly Farmers Market on a Saturday morning - one of our favorite things to do in Baltimore - and returned home with a ton of produce, among which was a huge bunch of basil and purple string beans (like green beans, but purple!)

One of my favorite pasta dishes is Trofie Genovese, which I discovered at Supper restaurant in the East Village (it used to be my favorite Italian place in NYC but for a variety of reasons, I won't go there anymore.  Feel free to ask me why).  It's a blend of trofie, a thin corkscrew pasta, pesto, green beans, and cubes of potatoes - a very simple dish, but when done well, it's delicious.  I hadn't had this in ages so I decided to create it myself using the purple string beans and basil from the market along with some amazing pasta and cheese from Mastellone's.  There was just one problem - Matt didn't have a food processor or chopper with which to make the pesto.

About five seconds after discovering this,  I realized I was being ridiculous - people have been making pesto for ages and Cuisinarts didn't exist until about 40 years ago.  So, armed with just a large cutting board and a chef's knife, I set to work mincing the basil, garlic, pine nuts, and parmigiano-reggiano cheese.  Into a large bowl they went and a huge glug of olive oil brought the whole thing together.

After the pasta, potatoes, and beans were cooked (recipe for this forthcoming!), it all got coated with the freshly-made pesto.  Onto our plates it went and, after the first bite, I was floored - this pesto was better than any other pesto I had ever eaten.

The whizzing blade of a food processor - and even over-chopping - bruises the leaves of herbs, turning them bitter.  Chopping, on the other hand, cuts the leaves with minimal bruising, leaving you with small pieces and virtually no bitterness.  This pesto that I had just made was not only redolent of basil and free of acridity, but it had texture to it, unlike the homogeneous blends I had previously eaten.  A chunk of pine nut here, a sliver of basil there - little surprises that made the dish that much more interesting.

Of course you could make this in a food processor, but resist the urge.  Instead, pull out your biggest cutting board and your sharpest knife and get chopping.  Although it takes longer than the 30 seconds it takes to make pesto in a food processor, it really doesn't take that long and the result is well worth it.


Hand-Cut Pesto
makes 1 cup

2 cups packed basil leaves (use more or less depending on their freshness and flavor)
½ cup pine nuts
3 medium cloves garlic
½ cup + ¼ cup good quality olive oil
½ cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper


Wash the basil leaves and dry them very well. Finely mince the basil leaves and transfer to a medium bowl. Finely chop the pine nuts and garlic and transfer to the bowl, and add the grated cheese. 

Add ½ cup olive oil to the bowl and stir to combine. Add more oil, if necessary, to thin the pesto to the desired consistency (it should be a loose paste - I used an additional 2 tablespoons). Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Transfer any leftover pesto to an airtight container and place a small piece of plastic wrap on the surface to prevent oxidization. You can also transfer the pesto to an ice cube tray and freeze until solid, then transfer to bags/containers to store.

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