Casual Recipe for Basil Pesto & Pistou

by Kay Baumhefner

Crush, Grind, Pound or Pulse

Listen to the sound of these words. Pesto, pistou, and pestle. They’re all connected. First by derivations linking them to the traditional preparation method of pounding with a mortar and pestle. And second by the fact that these two Mediterranean cousins are both simple sauces made of crushed basil and garlic emulsified with extra-virgin olive oil. Quick, versatile, and boasting of summer, they can now be made even more easily with just the flick of a food processor button. To serve up in seconds or stash in the freezer for the whole year round. Here’s what sets them apart …

Basil potager.

…You’re more apt to be familiar with pesto. It’s what single-handedly transforms a pot of pasta into the Italian classic, Pasta al Pesto. And if you travel to Liguria, you might discover that potatoes and green beans have been folded into that mix too. Here in America, you can often find mass-produced containers of pesto in the grocery store. But they’ll never taste as lively as homemade, where you can control the selection and quality of all your ingredients. Besides the fresh basil leaves, garlic and olive oil, Italian pesto typically includes Parmigiano-Reggiano and pine nuts (although sometimes less expensive walnuts are substituted). Sea salt and black pepper, of course. And I like a squeeze of lemon juice to perk up the balance.

With only three main ingredients, the less well known Provencal pistou is even simpler. Pistou gives it’s name and feisty flavor as a finishing touch to the hearty vegetable Soupe au Pistou, to which cheese is added separately. Usually made with only half the basil, twice as much olive oil and four times as much garlic as pesto, the texture of pistou is more like a thickened oil than a rich spread. Without the round belly flavors of cheese and nuts, the taste provides more of a piquant high note, which can either be left as fresh and clear or else embellished at whim. So this sauce not only goes together quicker, but also keeps your creative options more open. And, of course, that could include later deciding to add in nuts and/or cheese. But pesto is certainly not hard to make, and it offers many layers of flavor already put together in one handy mixture. Whether you decide to make pesto, pistou or some of each, you’ll be stocking your pantry with a magic trick that can instantly enliven countless dishes [see “Possible Uses” below].

And now for a word about keeping those basil leaves bright green once they’re been crushed into a sauce. Lemon juice is a good idea here too, or you could add a pinch of powdered vitamin C to help hold the overall color. I sometimes beat a tablespoon of soft butter in at the end of making pesto; it works to both flavor and seal the mixture. And for years I’ve often taught students the trick of blanching the basil leaves for 10-15 seconds in boiling, salted water, removing them to briefly shock in ice water, and then drain to squeeze dry. This preliminary fixing process also mellows the flavor a bit and makes the leaves more silky tender. But when I recently made a batch without blanching from leaves truly just picked from our garden, the green was as bright as it ever gets and has remained so for several weeks of studied observation. So I think that optimal freshness factor once again made the difference. And since it’s really only the surface that initially turns a dull yet still tasty brown, you can always spoon on a final layer of olive oil or press plastic wrap on top to keep your sauce from oxidizing. Then just scrape back that cap and presto! The green goods of pesto or pistou are revealed below.

Casual Recipe for Basil Pesto & Pistou

You’ll Need …

  • garlic cloves [1 for pesto or 4 for pistou], peeled & cut into thin slices
  • fresh basil leaves [from 1 bunch for pistou or 2 bunches for pesto = 4 or 8 loosely packed cups]
  • extra-virgin olive oil [1/2 cup]
  • sea salt
  • black pepper

plus for Pesto …

  • lightly toasted pine nuts [1/4 cup]
  • finely grated parmesan [loose 1/2 cup]

and maybe …

  • lemon juice [1 Tb.]
  • soft butter [1 Tb.]

To Make …

  1. In a food processor, first pulse the garlic [and pine nuts for pesto], and then add the basil to grind until evenly fine. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to evenly incorporate.
  2. With the machine running, pour in the olive oil to create an emulsion.
  3. [Add the parmesan, optional lemon juice and butter for pesto].
  4. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

and Play with …

Measurements: I was first introduced to making pesto decades ago by an Italian friend, who gauged her relative amounts by big and small handfuls, pinches and grinds, and enough oil to form an emulsion. This relaxed approach works. So feel free to use the above measurements only as a suggested guideline to help you get started. You’ll quickly find out what proportions you like best.

Basil: My bunch, your bunch, a basket full of sprigs. How to measure? Here’s a handy reference I’ve worked out for myself: leaves picked from 1 standard bunch basil = 2 pressed or 4 loose cups = 2 1/2 – 4 ounces [The weight varies considerably depending upon the variety, moisture content, time picked and length kept.]
If you can’t use your fresh basil right away, I’ve had the best luck storing it at room temperature out of direct light for up to 4 days inside a plastic bag blown up and sealed like a balloon; it will quickly blacken if refrigerated.

Pine Nuts: I adore them. Whether you toast them in the oven or a dry skillet, stir and watch carefully, because as soon as they get almost too hot to press between two fingers, they will suddenly burn and turn bitter. Cool before grinding. Or try walnuts!

Possible Uses: On toast or grilled bread. With ripe tomatoes and fresh cheeses. To sauce pasta, garnish soups, seafood, poultry or meats. To dress blanched, raw or roasted vegetables. To embellish vinaigrettes, mayonnaise, fresh or cultured cream. Slathered inside the best BLT. Or eaten straight from the jar by the dainty spoonful.

Bon Appetit!  — Kay

Basil leaves.
Basil emulsion.
Basil pesto pistou.

Post originally published Sept. 30, 2015 on Come Home to Cooking.

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