Nothing in the directions for making pesto says you need a strong arm, but if you are making pesto the traditional way in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle, a pitcher’s arm for grinding the ingredients to a paste is nearly as important as the herbs.
Pesto, from pestare, which means “to pound,” is one of Italy’s oldest sauces. Made with only a handful of ingredients (basil, garlic, olive oil and nuts), pesto originated in Genoa, where some of the best basil for making pesto grows.
We have never been ones to wiggle out of trying a good recipe, but making pesto the old-fashioned way calls for more time and muscle-power than we can spare. Happily, there is a shortcut, and it comes from Marcella Hazan, doyenne of Italian cooking. “Blender pesto is so good we should enjoy it with a clear conscience,” she writes.
And so, we plugged in our processor and whirled up a batch of cilantro pesto. Although basil is the traditional herb for making pesto, we have seen recipes using everything from arugula to spinach. Some versions, with sun-dried tomatoes or sweet peppers, are made without so much as a single leaf.
Pestos can be prepared ahead and refrigerated. For home cooks always looking for ways to add flavor to foods, pesto works like a charm. In addition to tossing with pasta, pesto adds a zesty kick to everything from baked potatoes to scrambled eggs and salad dressings. Think of it as the culinary equivalent of money in the bank.
—By Jean Kressy, a food writer in Ashburnham, Mass.