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Aug 17, 2006 09:14 PM

What makes Pesto great?

I have been making pesto for years but recently had some in a local restaurant that was exceptional. I inquired and was told it was the normal combination, fresh basil, olive oil, parmesan, garlic and pine nuts. Should I assume it is a particular oil that made it so much brighter in flavor ( and color)? It was very green, not the muddy color so often associated with pesto.

Any sage wisdom (no pun intended)?

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  1. I bet they blanched, then shocked the basil. Alternatively, they might have snuck in some spinach.

    1. It may just have been very, very fresh. The bright green color of the basil usually starts to fade after a day or so. Certainly, the variety of basil is a major factor in the taste/color of the pesto.

      1. Not only do I agree with Celeste (sorry Pika but you CAN'T blanche basil) but I'd check to see what recipe you are using. What makes Pesto great to me is the fact that when well made you couldn't really figure out exactly what is in it. Not only does freshness and quality of ingredients come into play but everything should be balanced by using the correct amounts.The flavors should blend into one flavor...Pesto! Marcella Hazan has what I believe to be the "perfect" proportions of everything.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Chas

          I totally agree about Marcella's recipe. I'm not a big fan, but I decided to look at her pesto recipe a while ago and have made every pesto with it since.

          The most important thing to me (keeps it from getting that sticky consistency) is that she prepares the basil, pine nuts, olive oil and garlic together than whirrs up the basil separately and then mixes the two together by hand. It really makes a difference imo.
          Check out her recipe.

          Also, when I get fresh basil from my CSA box, it's ever so much fresher, fragrant and tasty than even that bought at a good market.

          1. re: oakjoan

            Marcella Hazan's recipes are good as far as technique, but she uses a mix of Reggiano and Romano to substitute for the traditional young Sardo.

            I mash the garlic with salt in a small mortar, put some olive oil on top, and let it sit for at least half an hour. That cuts the bite without reducing the flavor.

          2. re: Chas

            Why CAN'T you blanche basil - just did it the other day for some recipe.

            I also use the Marcella recipe.

            1. re: MMRuth

              LOL!!! Well I guess you can do anything you want. :) But blanching the Basil would cause it to lose some of its fresh flavor. You certainly can taste the difference when using it in a sauce that has been cooked. And though blanching is not cooking, it does have the quality of removing bitterness from certain veg's or put another way, lessens the strength of the flavor of what you are blanching. I'm no worshipper of Marcella either as Oakjoan has said, but she doesn't blanche hers and her recipe works better than most restaurant versions I've tried. As for the bright green color well I think Bogie might be on to something with the Mortar and Pestle vs the Processed method. Also, the younger the leaves,the brighter green they tend to be. I also have often heard that the younger leaves taste "brighter and "lghter". Not "woody". Unless the leaves are REALLY huge, old and leathery, the darker work and taste just fine for me. Hey maybe my palate isn't as refined as some. :) I'm not all that concerned with how green it looks, as long as it doesn't look like "Dog Slop" :) I just want it to taste good.

              1. re: Chas

                Of course you can blanche basil. I just did a basil-wrapped cod with it.


          3. We just had a pesto discussion you could look up; it described how blanching basil preserves the color.

            Another possibility -- gardeners know to pick their herbs in the early morning, when the oils are most concentrated in the leaves. An evening or afternoon pick is rarely as bright-tasting.

            1. Different olive oil won't make it brighter green, but definitely can affect the flavor. And if the oil is a strong peppery oil it can overwhelm the delicate basil. I try to emulate the pesto we had in Liguria which was made with a really mild olive oil from Liguria itself. Still extra virgin, just made with different olives. I am not an expert in the different olive varieties so I can't tell you which one, but I can suggest that you use a lighter style extra virgin olive oil rather than a heavy one (Tuscan and Sicilian generally are on the assertive, peppery side).