Food Gold: Pesto Power Trio

Posted on Jun 15th, 2010 in Food Gold by Mr. Goldbar

Due to fan demand, Sam Goldman, he of Trinidad food porn fame, is back to hip us on how to make your very own summery pestos. And since we know how much a good working knowledge of pesto can improve your condiment/nosh game, we are trying a choose your own adventure format this week and hitting you with THREE recipes. Thank you for letting us kill you with kindness!

For me, pesto is one of the great tastes of summer. Sure, you can mash up some basil, garlic, and nuts in January. But it somehow it only tastes right in July or August, preferably when consumed on one of those warm nights when the outside of your glass beads up with condensation.

But there’s more to pesto than the familiar Ligurian style, or the very similar pistou made in Provence. In Italian, the word pesto is derived from the verb pestare, “to pound”. That’s the same root as “pestle”–the business half of mortar and pestle—and everything pounded or ground with one is a pesto, too. It’s easier to use a food processor. But doing it by does give a better texture, and is worth trying if you’re got the equipment and little time.

So what can you pound? In addition to the classic basil-garlic-nuts combination, Italians make a pesto rosso with sundried tomatoes and black olives. It’s strong and salty, a lot like puttanesca sauce. Many Asian cuisines feature “pestos”, too.  Although it’s not authentic, I like a Vietnamese-style one with peanuts, cilantro and fish sauce.

The recipes here are just starting points. All can be adjusted to taste. If you like more heat, add chilis. Their main ingredients can also be switched. If you’re a cilantro hater, substitute mint. The only thing to keep in mind is consistency.

Pesto, whether classic or updated, is a rich condiment with the texture of wet paste, not a liquid sauce. When served with pasta, you want it to cling to the noodles, adding just enough cooking water to prevent them from sticking.

Now go give it a pound!

I. Pesto Genovese

  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves, washed in cold water and patted THOROUGHLY dry with paper towels.
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • two garlic cloves, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons pinenuts or walnuts
  • salt
  • ½ cup grated parmigiano-reggiano
  • 2 tablespoons grated pecorino-romano
  • a few tablespoons softened butter (optional, but great for texture).

A note on ingredients: There’s no cooking here to conceal low-quality products. For this dish, it’s worth using your good oil and real Italian cheese. For more info on when to “pimp or skimp”, check this out.

1. Put the basil, olive oil, chopped garlic, nuts, and a pinch of salt in the bowl of a food processor (or mortar). Process (or pound) until creamy.
2. Remove blade or pour into a separate bowl, and mix in the cheeses with a spoon.
3. Mix in the butter, if using.
4. At this point, your pesto is done and will keep in the refrigerator for days. When you’re ready to serve it, boil pasta in salted water until it’s done, and toss with the pesto. There’s enough here for about 1 1/12 lbs of dry pasta. Reserve a bit of the cooking water to loosen the pesto when you toss it. You want it to be just wet enough that the noodles don’t stick, so only add a little at the time.
5. Garnish with extra basil leaves or nuts, and a drizzle more olive oil. The pasta shouldn’t need extra cheese—you want it to taste mostly of herbs.

II. Pesto Rosso
This is pretty much the same procedure with a different set of flavors. Pesto Genovese is rich and mellow. Pesto rosso is racy, and can be made quite spicy. If you really feel like funking it up, throw in a couple of anchovy fillets. Just be sure to use a quality brand, packed in good olive or, even better, salt (follow the package directions for rinsing and soaking).  The result will be very powerful, so you won’t need to use much.

  • 10 sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped.
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 20 pitted black olives
  • as much chili flakes as you like—start with about ½ teaspoon.
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme.
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary.

1. Put everything in the processor bowl or mortar, and process until a chunky paste forms.
2. Toss with hot pasta, again reserving some cooking water to loosen.
3. Garnish with chopped parsley, mint, or another fresh herb, a grind of black pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Because the flavors are so strong, this doesn’t need a topping of cheese. But if you want, use pecorino romano or another hard sheep’s milk cheese.

III. Vietnamese Peanut and Cilantro “Pesto”
As you can see, pesto is more of a process than a recipe. It will work with any combination of oil, herbs and a source of umami (like aged cheese, olives, or anchovies). All those things are common in Southeast Asian cuisine. So I make a “pesto” with the Vietnamese staples of peanuts, cilantro or mint, and fish sauce. This would be fine on Italian-style pasta. But it’s even better over vermicelli or, best of all, buckwheat soba.


  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • ½ cup cilantro or mint leaves, washed and patted dry.
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, chopped.
  • 1 fresh birdseye chili, roughly chopped (remove seeds if you don’t want it too hot; add another chili if you want it hotter).
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • ½ cup roasted, unsalted, shelled peanuts
  • ¼ cup fish sauce or soy sauce, or more to taste
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • juice of one or two limes (depends on the size and juiciness)

1. Put the garlic, herbs, ginger, chilli, and peanuts in the processor bowl. Process until finely chopped.
2. Add the oil, fish sauce or soy sauce, and sugar. Process until blended.
3. Add the limejuice and process just to mix. Adjust seasoning, adding more fish sauce or lime juice as necessary. You want it to taste fresh and bright, not like peanut butter.
4. Toss with your noodle of choice. Although it’s good with hot pasta, this works particularly well with cold noodles. If you do it that way, rinse the cooked noodles in cold water, drain, and then toss them with a little sesame oil to keep them from sticking. Then add the pesto, thinning it with a bit of hot water if it seems too thick.