Though pasta is more central to most of our diets and pesto is associated in certain snooty minds with ’80s-era fondness for now-passé Italian dishes (tiramisu, anyone?), it’s fairly indisputable that pesto wins the edible paste contest hands down. It’s flat-out brilliant.
The only way to get more heady aroma out of fresh basil is to smash it, and the only way to improve on that aroma is to add luxurious ingredients with a fattiness that will intensify the herbal essence: olive oil, Parmesan cheese and pine nuts. (Garlic doesn’t hurt, either. Garlic never hurts.)
The problem with homemade pesto is the tendency many people have to focus on the basil at the exclusion of the other ingredients. If you want a truly exceptional sauce, and not merely a suspension of herb flecks in olive oil, you must not be shy about adding plenty of cheese and nuts – and you need not be strict about hewing precisely to tradition.
Parmigiano Reggiano is the classic in pesto Genovese, but a decent pecorino Romano makes a respectable substitute without doing quite as much damage to your bank statement. Likewise, walnuts have a crunchy-yet-waxy texture similar to that of pine nuts, and they can cost half as much as pine nuts by weight.
It goes without saying that you can put pesto on pretty much anything: sandwiches, vegetables, meats, fish. But my favorite way of serving it is the Ligurian way: with both pasta and potatoes. (Traditional pasta alla ligure includes green beans, too, so throw a few handfuls into your pot of boiling water a few minutes before draining the pasta and potatoes, if you like. Broccoli and asparagus are nice additions, too.) There’s something ridiculously indulgent about eating pasta and potatoes together in the same dish, and the soft edges of the boiled potatoes blur into the pesto to create a sauce that’s even creamier and richer than pesto by itself.
For a printable copy of the recipe, click the link: