Pesto — a zesty northern Italian vegetarian sauce — can be customized in innumerable ways. The basil can be replaced with spinach, arugula, kale, or cilantro; the pine nuts subbed with hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, etc.; and the pecorino romano switched with literally any hard, dry cheese with a high salt content.
However, whenever I tweak this dish, I’m left longing for the original. This is the recipe that’s been passed down through the generations in my family.
Where pesto was born, in Liguria (the northwest coast of Italy), they serve it atop trofie, a little “twist” of pasta that is said to capture just the right amount of pesto for each bite. I’ve found fusilli to be a pretty good — if not entirely authentic — substitute.
6-8oz of basil, washed and stems removed (about three bunches)
4oz of whole pecorino romano cheese
1/3 to 1/2 C pine nuts (more for a richer sauce)
2 T olive oil
~1/4 C milk (more if necessary, note: the Nonna uses heavy cream)
1 small clove of garlic, peeled
Salt and pepper to taste
A pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)
1 lb dry trofie (or fusilli)
Traditionally, Ligurians made pesto with a mortar and pestle, but I just throw everything but the milk in the blender or food processor until it’s pulverized and then add just enough milk to make it take on a sauce-like consistency.
(If you’re feeling ambitious, you can add a smoky flavor by toasting the pine nuts lightly on low heat in a pan, then allowing them to cool before adding to the mixture. If you over-toast the pine nuts, they turn rancid and need to be thrown away, so this is a perfectly good way to waste a really expensive ingredient. YMMV.)
Cook your pasta al dente (as there is no other way) and then drain (but do not rinse) and toss with the pesto while the pasta is still hot. Serve immediately.
If you’re not serving the pesto immediately, place it in an airtight container, cover tightly with plastic wrap, then seal the lid. Air contamination will cause the pesto to turn brown. It will still taste fine, but no one will want to eat it. (You might get away with sneaking it onto a sandwich, again, YMMV.)