Q: Can you tell me how to make a great pesto?
A: I sure can!
Pesto is traditionally a sauce made from fresh basil, pine nuts, olive oil, grated cheese and garlic that have been ground together in a mortar and pestle. Here at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana we stick to tradition in that we always use fresh basil and pine nuts. But, like many others, we change the recipe slightly to make something new. In making pesto you always want to use the freshest basil you can find. In using fresh basil, your final product will have more flavor and have a more vibrant green color. There are a few tricks to maintaining that green color, although some pizzaioli and chefs will disagree. One of which is to blanch your basil quickly in boiling water for 1-2 seconds and then quickly transfer it to cold water (this seals in the color). Adding lemon or lime juice to your recipe will also aid in preserving the green color we all know and love.
We use an extra virgin olive oil of good quality, but one that does not have such a distinct flavor of its own that it will over power any of the other flavors. At Tony’s we always use pine nuts in our recipe instead of other nuts. Pine nuts are generally one of the more expensive nuts on the market. Switching to another nut such as walnuts, almonds or even cashews could lower your food cost. It also would provide the added bonus of changing the flavor of your pesto to make it more your own.
In some areas of the country depending on the season, basil can be hard to come by or can be expensive. So changing to another green is a way some restaurants and chefs work around those problems. Other common ingredients used are arugula, spinach, or even sun-dried tomatoes and red peppers. Just like mentioned previously, the flavor and intensity of all herbs and vegetables varies throughout the year depending on what season it is. Garlic is subject to this fluctuation as well. The intensity and spiciness of garlic fluctuates throughout the year and there are a couple ways to counteract this. You could just add less garlic to your recipe to cut down on the intensity or you could add something sweet to counteract the spiciness. At Tony’s, we like to add a little bit of agave nectar to cut down on the garlic’s spiciness.
When it comes to the cheese in pesto we like to use Parmigiano Reggiano in both grated and shaved forms. Using the cheese in both forms adds a little bit of texture to the pesto so it’s not all one smooth consistency. When we blend all of the ingredients together here at the restaurant we hold back some of the oil so as to keep it more paste like and thick. A thin layer of oil at the top helps keep oxidation at bay and keeps the color bright green. When we want to use the pesto we take a small amount and thin it out with the remaining oil we reserved.
RESPECTING THE CRAFT features World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Sacramento. Tony compiles the column with the help of his trusty assistants, Laura Meyer and Thiago Vasconcelos. If you have questions on any kitchen topic ranging from prep to finish, Tony’s your guy. Send questions via Twitter @PizzaToday, Facebook (search: Pizza Today) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll pass the best ones on to Tony.