Basil Pesto


Sorting and displaying produce may be my true calling. I worked at the farmer's market for three summers and being around all the freshly harvested crops was intoxicating. Sometimes would organize tomatoes in a rainbow from the dark Cherokee purple, through Green Zebra and out to Pink Brandywine. I relished in stacking savoy cabbages into huge piles, turning them so their curly leaves opened up and splayed out towards customers. 

We kept large coolers in the back of the booth during the summer to keep basil out of the hot sun. We were careful to never get the leaves wet or they would get brown nearly immediately. When our big display basket was running low I would open the lid of the cooler and grab an armful of basil bunches, my favorite and most aromatic task.

I heard something recently about the emotional memory wrapped up in smell, and how through cooking we can bring emotions to the table simply through scent (this was in a recent episode of the excellent Netflix documentary Chef's Table). For me, basil immediately jogs memories of summer - grilled corn, deep joy, and warm lazy breezes. Even as gloomy Bay Area summer is upon us, sniffing a fresh bunch of basil transports me away from thick fog to somewhere warmer where the pace is slower.

Maybe this is why I've been making batches of pesto weekly lately - to combat the cold, bright white sky and bring a little of summer into my kitchen. While you can easily whip this stuff up in a food processor, I've been enjoying the scents, time and ritual of pounding pesto with a mortar and pestle. It's enjoyable work, and crushing the leaves into a paste brings those aromas to the forefront.

A quick note on storing basil, which tends to wilt quickly. I typically leave it out in a jar of water on my countertop like cut flowers. I trim the stems, making sure not to let any of the leaves get wet, then keep the jar away from direct light. I love the way it makes my kitchen smell and looking at it brings me joy. To help it last even longer, you can loosely tent a plastic bag over the top to create a little greenhouse effect. You best option, though, is to use right away.

Basil Pesto
From The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

  • 1 bunch of fresh basil, leaves picked from stem yielding 1 lightly packed cup
  • 1 garlic clove
  • pinch of salt + more to taste
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, lightly toasted (or pinenuts if you can afford them)
  • 1/4 cup of freshly grated parmesan
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Peel garlic and place in bottom of the mortar and sprinkle with salt. Pound to a paste and then add nuts. Continue to pound until incorporated, then add parmesan. Place mixture in a bowl then roughly chop the basil. Add basil to mortar and pound into a paste. Notice your arm muscle may begin to burn and keep pounding!

Dump the bowl of crushed nuts and cheese back into the mortar and pound together. Once incorporated, slowly stream in olive oil while you continue to pound. Taste and add more salt if it needs it. Toss with pasta, slick on roasted vegetables, dip your bread into it, fold into your omelets, pour over goat cheese, freeze the rest if you make a big batch.