Outside Italy, pesto means that fantastic Genoese paste of basil, garlic and strong cheese in oil. In Italy, pesto means ‘pounded’ – whence, incidentally, our word pestle (and mortar). Granted, the basil version is the standard in most parts of Italy. But travel south, especially to Sicily, and you find that much more than basil can be pounded.
Most pestos involve nuts of some kind. And many – though not all – have cheese. What they all have in common is their amazing simplicity and speed. In the time it takes for water to boil and pasta to cook, you can whip up something truly delicious.
I’m forever experimenting with pesto – occasionally with results that go straight into the compost bin, other times with surprising outcomes. This was today’s delicious variety, a tribute to those herbs out in the garden which have weathered snow and freezing temperatures and continue to taste fantastic.
Peeled almonds – 125 g
Salted capers – 1 tbsp
Garlic – 1 large clove
Fresh marjoram – 1 sprig
Parsley – 1 tbsp, finely chopped
Olive oil – 50 ml
Parmesan to serve
Put the almonds into a small frying pan without oil and toss them over a low heat for a couple of minutes, until they begin to turn brown: this gives them a more distinctive flavour in the finished pesto. If you’re confident about your blender (stick or otherwise), put the almonds into the blender goblet. I prefer to whizz them beforehand in a coffee grinder I keep for this purpose until they’re a fine-ish powder.
To the almonds in the blender goblet, add the oil, the peeled and roughly chopped garlic, the capers which should have been very well rinsed to remove as much salt as possible, the chopped parsley and the leaves from a small sprig of marjoram. Beware, fresh marjoram is extremely pungent: you won’t need very many leaves at all. If in doubt, drop them into the mixture a couple at a time until you get the strength you like.
Blitz the ingredients into a smooth paste, adding more oil if it’s lumpy or difficult to work. It should be the consistency of soft peanut butter.
Drop sufficient pasta (about 100 g per person – I like pesto on thick-ish spaghetti or, alternatively, on some large pasta shape such as paccheri) into fast-boiling water and cook it until the pasta is al dente. Before you drain the pasta, scoop out a cup of the cooking water and set it aside. In the bottom of the pot or serving dish, mix an appropriate amount of pesto (the quantities given in this recipe should yield enough for 400 g of pasta) with a little of the pasta cooking water – start with half a tablespoon and add more until your pesto is slightly more liquid but not runny. Add the pasta and mix the pesto in well, then serve topped with paper-thin slivers of parmesan.
© Anne Hanley, 2011
All recipes serve four.