No one needs another recipe for pesto, but the basil, if not quite dead, is no longer thriving, and so it is time to pick the plants clean and lay in a stash for winter, or at least the next week. Last weekend I set aside time to do just this, which is incredibly easy now that I no longer use the mortar and pestle.
I love mortar and pestle sets, and find them incredibly useful, and satisfying. I have a small collection of them, including a small one made of virtreous ceramic, and a larger ceramic Japanese mortar with a grooved surface that helps facilitate grinding, but is a bitch to clean. What I really covet is a molcajete, and if I had unlimited counter space, I would leave it out on display because I find it's primitive, sculptural form so attractive. Once I purchased one in the supermarket for a very good price, and immediately set about using it, only to find that whatever I prepared in it was inedible due to the presence of tiny bits of pulverized stone.
For years I swore by the mortar and pestle method of making pesto, believing it yielded a sauce with a true, fresh basil flavor, as opposed to the slightly stale quality of dried basil, on the theory that bruising, as opposed to chopping the leaves preserves the plant's volatile oils. This is also why most recipes instruct for basil to be cut in a chiffonade, as opposed to finely chopped, like parsley.
It was time consuming, and a bit of a pain in the ass, to make pesto by hand, but also fun to do with the kids — pounding things is extremely therapeutic at any age. When she was small, Sarah used to ask for a turn marching the basil.
A few years ago I read Laura Schenone's lovely The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, and although I probably shouldn't have been, I was surprised to read a description of Enrichetta, a Genoese woman who made pesto in a blender. Her secrets included working quickly, and adding a bit of water to the blender to give the sauce a smooth, creamy texture.
As Enrichetta's son Sergio says, "Better to make good pesto in a blender than bad pesto in a mortar." This seemed like eminently sensible advice, for pesto, or for life. And so I put away my mortar in favor of the food processor. I was getting tired of all that pounding anyway, and of the kids picking strands of basil they deemed insufficiently pulverized off their pasta.
And now, while making pesto is no longer an event, it is every bit as satisfying and delicious.
You can use either a blender or a food processor for this. Depending on the size of your machine, you may want to make this in two batches to ensure you can work quickly, without clogging the machine.
Because I make this is large batches, and keep the sauce in a jar in the refrigerator covered with a layer of olive oil, I don't add the parmesan until I toss the pesto with pasta. If you are going to serve all the pesto immediately you can add the cheese after the basil. Made without the cheese, pesto keeps for a while in the refrigerator covered in a layer of oil, or can be frozen for longer periods.
1/2 cup pignoli
generous pinch salt
1 fat garlic clove
3-4 fistfuls basil leaves, about 4 cups
parmigiano-reggiano for serving
Put the pignoli, salt, garlic and a tablespoon or two of oil in the blender or food processor. Grind well, and scrape down the bowl.
Add the basil in two batches, scraping down the sides of the container as necessary, adding a little water at this time. If serving immediately over pasta, add parmigiano-reggiano and process well.