Summer Dreams: Pesto à Presto

During our long, dark winters back in Maine, one of the things that brought back the essence summer faster than a black fly bite was the taste of pesto. Each year, we would grow several rows of basil in our herb garden and, at the warning of the first frost in September, we would hurriedly pick all the leaves and make batches of pesto to freeze. Then, sometime around mid-January, when we were just beginning to feel as if winter would never end, we would take out a container of pesto from the freezer and have a little summer-fest by the fireside.

Here in the Tucson desert, our summer season for basil is extended and, with some care during frosts, can be year-round! But this past weekend, we decided to harvest all our plants (some of which were several years old and had grown woody stems), make several batches of pesto, and then plant anew - both with seeds given by our friend Laura from Renée's Garden, and with new plants from the nursery. This was done, of course, while enjoying some homemade bread and wine, and while Mark read to me experts from The Enchantress of Florence.

I began making pesto sometime in the mid-1980s. Like everyone, I was hooked on this sauce. At that time, I ate garlic like it was candy but, soon thereafter, developed an allergy and had to give it up. Did I just hear you gasp??? You know, at first it sounded terrible to me, too, but in eliminating this one branch of the allium family from my diet, my taste buds were awakened to an amazing array of flavors that had been overpowered by garlic, and pesto was one of them. Suddenly, the basil, cheese and subtle pine nut flavors were really prominent.

An aside about this allergy: I used to miss garlic but, over time, I have discovered so many ways of flavoring foods that if I could eat it again I probably would choose not to. However, being able to eat it safely would make dining out easier. When we dine out, chefs who say, "There is no garlic in this dish," often neglect to notice the garlic in the Worcestershire sauce, mustard, etc. No, it isn't deadly in those quantities but it is quite unpleasant for several hours afterward.

So, back to pesto. When I first visited Liguria in the late 1980s - the birthplace of pesto as we know it - I was not able to eat pesto because of the garlic. In fact, I had given up the hope that I would ever be able to eat it again. But, one day, while walking through the streets of Vernazza, I came across an elderly woman stripping basil for pesto on her front stoop. I stopped and chatted with her in my kindergarten Italian, and asked how she made her pesto. "Basilico, pignoli, formaggio, olio, sale e una noce di burro" – basil, pine nuts, cheese, oil and a nut of butter. "Aglio?" Garlic? I asked? No, she said, her husband didn't like it! For me, this was a revelation. It had never occurred to me that I could still make pesto - or any recipe - by simply omitting the garlic. My last question for her was about the butter - I had never heard of that. Butter, she asserted, rounds out the flavors and keeps it green. 

"Nonna" - my name for my freind in Vernazza, as I never got her name and I assume she is someone's nonna - made her pesto in a large mortar and pestle. Pestle... Pesto... Of course! The light dawned. The name comes from the Genoese word pestâ (Italian: pestare), which means to pound, to crush, in reference to the original method of preparation which used a marble mortar and wooden pestle. However, the ingredients in a traditionally made pesto are not "pounded" but "ground" with a circular motion of the pestle in the mortar. This same Latin root through Old French also gave rise to the English word pestle.

While I actually have a marble mortar and wooden pestle from Liguria, it is small and I have never attempted this traditional method. I am definitely a child of the food processor generation (Generation Purée) and the processor works beautifully!

Sometimes I use the butter and, at other times, I don't. Either way it is delicious, simple and summery. The last time I served pasta al pesto in the summer, I topped it with a few halved grape tomatoes which I had quickly marinated with olive oil and saffron. What a nice combination, both for taste and color!

One of our favorite hors d'oeuvres are these little "caprese bites" - large cherry tomatoes with the insides scooped out, a small dab - about 1/8 teaspoon - pesto inserted and then topped with a mozzarella chunk, topped with salt and freshly ground black pepper. They are tasty and easily made in advance. Serve on a bed of lemon leaves, or leafy green lettuce.

So, here is what I learned from Nonna, translated from her folk measurements to something you can count on. Her measurements appear first in blue.

Buon appetito, and happy summer in winter!
~ David

Nonna's Pesto

4 large handfuls basil leaves, 1 large handful pignoli, 2 large handfuls grated cheese, a wine glass (she used a tumbler) olive oil,
a pinch of salt and a nut of butter

4 cups packed basil leaves, washed and dried
1/4 cup pignoli (pine nuts)
2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 - 3/4 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter (optional)

Place the basil on the bowl of the food processor. Sprinkle with the pignoli, cheese and salt. Pulse 12-15 times. Wipe down the sides of the processor and pulse 5 times. Add the olive oil and butter, and process for 10 seconds, wipe down the sides of the processor, and finish with another 5-10 seconds processing. Divide into glass jars and top with a thin coating of olive oil. Even with Nonna’s butter, it still oxidizes quickly! Store in the refrigerator or freeze in serving-size batches.


  1. Hello David. I looove garlic so I can't imagine my cooking without it. But I suppose that if I had to give it up I would certainly find ways to flavor my dishes with other amazing ingredients out there, much like you do. Thank you for a wonderful recipe, it feels special coming from an Italian nonna.
    Love your photographs, that green of the basil looks so vibrant under that Tuscon sun.

  2. Magda - when I think of all the other possible allergies, garlic hasn't been that bad. If I couldn't have fermented things - cheese and alcohol come to mind first - I think I would have to be institutionalized!

  3. David, for us garlic lovers, it is pretty darn hard to imagine a pesto without garlic! Bravo for not giving up on a classic recipe. It looks wonderful! Have you tried using a little Asafoetida in the recipe to add a little garlicky taste without garlic?

  4. Towny - we used to add chives, garlic chives or even white truffle oil to mimic the garlic flavor but, in the end, we really decided we liked pesto for its other flavors! I hadn't thought of asafoetida (hing), though - what a great idea!

  5. I have so, so much basil in my garden at the moment. Planning to make pesto this weekend :)

  6. Anh - Hope you are having a nice summer Down Under - I hear it is a great climate for plants! Enjoy your pesto!

  7. David,
    Adam Gopnik prefers lime to lemon for his pesto--what do you think? Lovely post!

  8. Just bought some beautiful basil from the Golden Harvest!
    Hmmmm....pesto may be in my future....in my freezer! But, not for long, I'm sure!

  9. Susan - we really miss the Golden Harvest! Fresh basil year round is a very good thing! It was great fun playing with you in the kitchen this weekend! Come back soon for "Orrechiette, The Sequel!"


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