Sunday Pasta®: Trofie al Pesto Genovese (Basil Pesto Sauce)
I once had a bowl of trofie al pesto for dessert. We were young, carefree, and on the Italian Riviera, Zelda and I. We wandered into a trattoria. It could have been any trattoria in Liguria. The pasta arrived at the table. I can only describe it as undescribably delicious. Then came the secondo — also delicious, but not life altering, like the pesto was. When the chef emerged from the kitchen, I lunged to hug him as he asked if we wanted dessert. All I could say was, “Yes, Si, more trofie al pesto.” He laughed and obliged. I could have eaten more.
I am always amazed by how far Pesto Genovese in America has strayed from its original, idealic perfection. How could something 1200 years old and so beautiful, be so damned by one generation? I blame laziness and greed. Sure we don’t have government protected basil growing near the Mediterranean Sea. And sure most of our pine nuts come from China, not Italy. And sure, most Americans get their “parmesan” cheese out of a hideous green shaker. (Think Kraft, but replace the ft at the end with a p.) But more than that, pesto in America suffers because the real stuff isn’t easy or cheap to make. Let me clarify, it is relatively easy and cheap to make, but I just haven’t found a restaurant willing to go the extra mile to make it correctly, and thus it becomes over processed, over salted, over oiled, and often times, creamed (gasp), all with inferior ingredients. How far we have fallen…
It’s time for pesto’s second act in America. In order to set the record straight once and for all, I’ve gone to the Consortium of Pesto Genovese Producers in Liguria for the official recipe. No more debate: This is how you make pesto Genovese (more or less). Here are a few ground rules. 1) Use a marble mortar and a wooden pestle*. 2) There are only a few ingredients here, so don’t be cheap. Although you probably can’t find actual DOP Genovese Basil, use the freshest basil you can find. Try to use Italian olive oil, cheese, and pine nuts. 3) Trofie and trennette are the preferred pasta choices. If you can’t find either, substitute fresh short pasta for the trofie or use linguine for the trenette. 4) Practice and enjoy the process. It gets easier and better. And 5) Because you’re worth it.
Gently wash the basil in cold water and pat dry with a towel. Crush a glove of garlic in the mortar and add some basil (30 leaves per clove), and then a sprinkle of salt. In a gentle circular motion, use the mortar to tear the basil until it turns into a bright green oily liquid. Repeat this process until all the basil and garlic are added. Add the pine nuts and gently crush them into the mixture. Next, add the cheese. When the cheese is mixed in, slowly drizzle in the olive oil and mix together. At this point, the pesto is ready to use. Cook the pasta, retaining some of the cooking water. Drain the pasta and place it in a serving bowl. Slowly mix in the pesto sauce and a few tablespoons of the cooking water, as necessary, if it looks dry. Serve immediately with a sprinkle of Parmigiano.
* If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can use a food processor, but use it on pulse mode, so as to avoid turning this into a puree. There should be a fine, leafy consistency.