Pesto alla Genovese
Updated: May 7
If you want a fresh 15 minute dinner and you've got a blender, this one is for you. Pesto is one of those things that I never liked until I made it myself. To me, it never had an exciting flavor or desirable texture. The secret to this zingy pesto is the emulsion between the ground nuts, parmigiano reggiano, and pasta cooking water that creates a cream-like viscosity with no lactose to be found. Heavily seasoned pasta water and parmigiano reggiano contribute enough salt for my liking, so I top this pesto with just cracked black pepper, lemon zest, and a touch more cheese. The ratios in this recipe are based off of the New York Times recipe.
Pesto really just means "beaten" in Italian; you can really beat anything you desire into this recipe and it will still be good. Despite my protests and the fact that parmigiano reggiano is lactose-free, my mom omits the cheese. We frequently will use more than one type of nut, and we throw in other greens we have on hand such as parsley or arugula. Any of these changes will still create a delicious pesto, but just make sure to adjust seasoning if necessary — "that's just you cooking!" — to quote Chef John from Food Wishes.
Note: the pictures for this recipe were for double the amount.
Makes enough pesto for 1/2 a pound box of pasta; 2-3 servings.
Dairy free/Vegan option: omit the cheese
Gluten-free option: use gluten-free pasta
Possible adaptations: sub 1/3 of the parmigiano for pecorino cheese; use walnuts, almonds, or pistachios instead of pine nuts; use other greens with the basil, such as parsley, cilantro, carrot greens, or arugula.
2 tablespoons (15g) nuts such as pine, walnut, pistachio, or almonds
1 small clove garlic, peeled
1/2 cup (45g) freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese (if you use pre-ground, we can't be friends)
1 cup (35g) basil leaves, washed and dried tightly packed in the measuring cup
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons (40 mL) extra virgin olive oil
Lots of kosher salt for the pasta water (at least a quarter cup!)
1/2 pound pasta (one half of most commercial boxes), ideally a twisty shape like fusilli, trofie, or gemelli
Freshly ground cracked black pepper
Set a large pot of water to a boil. (If you add hot tap water, it will boil faster). When it is at a rolling boil, heavily salt the water (I'm talking a LARGE handful).
Meanwhile, toast the nuts if not already toasted in a dry pan over medium heat. This will only take about a minute; use your nose to smell when they are perfumed and therefore ready. They will not brown a lot.
When the water is at a rolling boil, add the pasta and cook to al dente.
In a little food processor or blender pulse the toasted nuts, garlic, and cheese until a fine powder consistency is formed. Add the basil, in batches if necessary, and pulse until well puréed. Add the oil in little by little (if your blender allows you to stream it in while mixing, do so); blend until well mixed. Stop and use a silicone spatula to scrape down the sides as needed.
When the pasta is ready, reserve a cup of pasta water before draining the cooking water off and placing in a large mixing bowl.
Toss the pesto with the pasta and a tablespoon of hot pasta water to totally coat the pasta.
Serve with extra cheese and some cracked black pepper.
Jeremy Scheck is the founder and editor-in-chief of Collegetown Kitchen and After School Bakery. He is a student at Cornell University in the class of 2022 studying Spanish and Italian. Aproveche, buon appetito and bon appétit!