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Pesto experts, a lil help please?

So I have a nice big bunch of basil and I'd like to make pesto. I have pine nuts. I admittedly only have the parm that comes in a jar for sprinkling but I'd like to make do. I have grape seed oil. I'd like to make pesto but whenever I've tried in the past it comes out as this thick leafy mash or just some soupy thing with green bits which lack the body one normally sees in pesto. I don't have a food processor. Closest I've got is one of those chopper attachments for my immersion blender. Any pesto making tips for me or lower calorie and easier to make alternatives?

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  1. my two cents - and i'm sure people will disagree.

    first of all, remove the basil leaves and wash them. Dry ALL of them thoroughly [you don't want excess water in here. Second, toast the pignoli. Third. Don't add that cheese from the green jar. Wait until you're able to get something decent and add it later. For some reason, long-term storage with the cheese just makes the pesto turn black faster. I add cheese as I go.

    so, let's go with just basil, garlic, and olive oil [never used grapeseed oil in this]. I normally make my pesto quite thick - takes up less storage room and i can adjust the thickness to whatever i need at the time.. I mix in additional olive oil as i use it. And top off the jar with a layer of oilve oil.

    good luck!

    1 Reply
    1. re: jiffypop

      I typically use *way* less oil than classic recipes such as Hazan's. I freeze it without cheese and add the cheese later (agree on using good cheese; romano is cheaper than parm and I can't tell the difference in pesto). So OP, you have one of those mini food processors that you use the immersion blender stick on? I have one of those, and that should work fine, though you can't make very much at one time in those.

    2. The secret to great pesto is to pack your measuring cup TIGHTLY with basil. If your recipe says 2 cups, you need to hold the basil down and keep packing the cup until you can't possibly get any more inside.

      I know, sounds weird, but trust me, it works.

      If you don't have a food processor, remember that for centuries pesto (the Italian word for "pounded") was made in a mortar with a pestle. I would not use the chopper but the immersion blender.

      You really do need olive oil to get the fullness of flavor you will be expecting. Chop your garlic first, then add the basil.

      1 Reply
      1. re: ChefJune

        Ah maybe thats it. I'm measuring them wrong. I stuff it a bit into the cup but its still kinda loose in there usually. I don't have a mortar and pestle either :) but I'll give it a try with the blender and some olive oil.

      2. I ALWAYS blanch the basil and then rinse with cold water (keeps it green). I also use olive oil.

        4 Replies
        1. re: foodslut

          Blanching, no way. The trick to keeping basil green is to remove all stems, just leaves.

          1. re: treb

            I add a good amount of parsley to keep the color. Always keep a layer of olive oil on top to prevent oxidation, which is what causes the darkening, just like with avocados.

            1. re: zeldaz51

              I generally don't bother with the layer of oil, since in my experience, while it does darken, it is only the very top layer, and when I use it, I just stir it up at the last minute and the result is still very green.

            2. re: treb

              Ive worked with credible recipes that call for blanching - it works just fine, the water runs off.

              Usually freeze our pesto (no cheese included)- putting a layer of plastic wrap on top of the paste helps prevent iciness and seals it a bit without adding the olive oil layer.

          2. Don't even think of using anything but olive oil (preferably Ligurian, but nobody's perfect). You want a combination of pecorino and parmigiano, freshly grated or close enough to pass. Pre-packaged is probably disgusting but I don't know what you mean by green jar. Green can (Kraft) is definitely to be tossed, not for pesto. Or for anything. If you have no food processor and no blender, use a mortar and pestle. Don't toast the pinoli.

            11 Replies
            1. re: mbfant

              Every pesto recipe I've ever read called for toasted pine nuts to bring out their nuttiness. Why do recommend against it?

              1. re: grampart

                My experience is the opposite. I've never seen a recipe that calls for toasting. Exhibit a: Hazan: http://www.food.com/recipe/pesto-marc...

                1. re: DGresh

                  You obviously haven't looked at very many recipes.

                  1. re: grampart

                    Not true. I have looked at many. Toasting the pine nuts destroys their creaminess.
                    I like them raw, some people like them toasted. It is a matter of preference.
                    I never have blanched the leaves and would not.

                    1. re: magiesmom

                      One chef's opinion.

                      "You may think it's nice to toast the pine nuts until they're coloured, to give them a nutty taste, but the really good pestos I've tasted in Italy just have them very lightly toasted, to give a creaminess rather than a nuttiness."


                      1. re: grampart

                        The traditional Genoese recipe does NOT toast the pine nuts.

                    2. re: grampart

                      <You obviously haven't looked at very many recipes.>
                      It doesn't take many recipes if you look for an authentic one -- such as Marcella Hazan's.

                      1. re: ChefJune

                        I stand corrected, but I still believe one will find more recipes calling for toasted than not.

                        1. re: grampart

                          does that mean they're "better" to you?

                        2. re: ChefJune

                          Marcella's recipe isn't authentic either. She uses butter. Her recipe is good, but not traditional. She probably felt the butter compensated for the lack of decent ingredients. According to the genovesi, the basil must be the local variety, the pine nuts from the Mediterranean (not Chinese, for example), the cheeses parmigiano-reggiano and pecorino sardo, the garlic sweet, and the olive oil preferably from Liguria.
                          All else is improvisation.

                          1. re: mbfant

                            true-- while I use her recipe, I never add the butter.

                2. The green can is similar to sawdust. If you have a Trader Joe's nearby, you can get better parmesan than that, but still not spend a fortune.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: sandylc

                    I was just hoping to use it up and not have to hit the store but I get your point...

                    1. re: foxspirit

                      The sawdust in those green cans -- well, I don't want to know what's really in them. I just know that years ago we did a taste test.... Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano vs that apcray. Never bought the green can again.

                      There are some very good domestic Parmesans (Bel Gioioso makes one) but they are NOT Parmigiano.

                  2. Do you have a Mortar and Pestle, if not finely chop with a very sharp knife. Also, evoo no grape seed oil and freshly grated romano or parm.

                    1. I use the chopper attachment for my immersion blender with the same results as my mini food processor. I also like grape seed oil as a lighter alternative to olive. No comment on the parm.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Berheenia

                        Good to know. I get that its not the real thing but its nice to be able to make a reasonable facsimile with whats in the pantry. And yes, I acknowledge that the green can is a shameful thing to have :)

                        1. re: foxspirit

                          I;d NEVER in a LIFETIME apologize for keeping a green can of "sprinkle" cheese as my teenage daughter calls it and adores it .

                          Is it top tier Isle of Sardinia made cheese by Virgin sheep of the ancesters of Roman Gods and blessed by the Pope and Mario Balotelli (no-not the ginger dude with the Orange Croc's)?
                          Hell no.

                          Will it work in pesto in a pinch? Fuck yes.

                          I;ve had the sawdust verions. Dollar Store and Ollies Outlet proved that point to me right quick long ago. But some and many pre-ground are just fine.

                          Everyone works within a budget and what works for them.

                          If you were serving it for $25 a plate at a restaurant , i;d be suspect. Home use,? Yep, no problem for me. BTDT.

                      2. Disclaimer-- I am NOT a pesto expert. No way, no how. I make all sorts of basil-olive concoctions and enjoy each and every one. They're different from each other but I am not going for the 'authenticity' crown. Yesterday, I tried just basil leaves and olive oil in the blender. No Parmesan, no garlic, no nuts; just basil leaves and oil. Wow! It was fabulous spooned over fresh garden tomatoes. Was it 'authentic' pesto? Likely not but it was a fine sauce. Might I suggest, foxspirit, that you experiment and find what YOU like. Experts be damned.

                        1. Thanks for your suggestions all. I think the secret for me was totally in the packing on the basil leaves. ChefJune, you are the winner! I had previously scrunched them up sure but this time around the jammed and jammed until the little measuring cup threatened to split before following the recipe as written. I did not toast my pine nuts. I did use the "saw dust" cheese I had and the grape seed oil. It came out great. Really delicious and lively with just the right amount of body to it. Do I think it could have benefitted from some really good olive oil and top notch cheese? Sure. But I wanted to try first making it with stuff I had handy and will likely have handy go forward. Thank you for the tips all.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: foxspirit

                            I'm sure the pesto experts will not like this at all - but when I want to use less olive oil in my pesto, I sub in some tomato paste and use a little less oil.

                            1. re: cresyd

                              Why not? "Pesto" after all, means "pounded," not Basil!

                              Personally I don't like to mix basil and parsley in pesto, but I do love and make both basil and parsley pestos.

                              The French make the stuff, too.. but without the nuts. They call it "Pistou." Still means "pounded."

                              And when I'm making it for freezing, I just freeze the basil, garlic, olive oil puree. Anything else I might want to add comes later.

                              1. re: ChefJune

                                Traditionalists are traditionalists - either way, it doesn't impart a strong tomato flavor and I kind of prefer the consistency that the tomato paste gives.

                                That being said when I make parsley pesto I would never use tomato paste. But likely because the sweetness of the tomato paste mirrors the basil but not so much with parsley.

                                1. re: ChefJune

                                  Agree, one of the nice things about pesto is that you can use a lot of different things not only basil, e.g. arugula, watercress, parsley etc. and also different nuts like peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts etc. (Or go an "asian" route by including some ginger and peanuts which makes a nice pesto for pasta with grilled shrimps) And if you move from green to red pestos a whole new world of possibilities opens up (but I think olive oil is a must for a really good pesto, grape oil won't ruin it but the overall flavor will be quite bland compared one with olive oil)

                                2. re: cresyd

                                  When I want to use less olive oil in my pesto, I use elephant garlic instead of regular.

                                1. re: EatFoodGetMoney


                                  Very interesting read eatfoodgetmoney.
                                  Thanks for posting the link.

                                  I find the author very good in his assertation of the process and the level at which BASIL pesto should be made, but this qoute:
                                  "First, there's the basil itself; do it right, and that basil should be freshly picked from the Ligurian hillsides when the leaves are small and the basil plants are flowering. Obviously, that's out of the question for most of us."

                                  makes me want to smack his non-reasearching ass up side teh head. LOLZ.

                                  Basil should not be let to go to flower until the end of the season unless it is its sole purpose.
                                  Once flowering, the leaves turn bitter and the plant begins to push its enrgy away from shoots and back into the bigger lower leaves for sun cunsumption leaving huge bland bottom leaves and small bitter top leaves with shoots and flowers. And then the flowers go to seed afte that.

                                  Thus why basil meant for eating needs to trimmed , plucked and maintained , usually daily,. I;ve got the basil triplets (as I call them -3 plants, err, bushes) and 24" to 30" high is the max I can go before the flower buds hint of show up, then which they and its leaves around it are culled promptly.

                                  For me it's every other day. Thus why I, and most of my freinds, co-workers and most I interact with get tired of basil from me buy Early to mid August. And I grow the sweet Genovese basil. Pic of mine attached.

                                  As mentioned, basil for pesto does not stretch very well, thus why I grow my own. The store bought can be a little old, and dows not make that big of a batch.
                                  I paid $3 to $4 a plant and from my $10 outlay eat it for 5 months. Been doing it for close to a decade.

                                  /end jjjrfoodie basil rant.

                                  1. re: jjjrfoodie

                                    Totally agree!!
                                    It really grinds my gears to see fruits and vegetables picked way past their prime. 80% of the asparagus at my local farmers market is downright shameful.

                                    Edit: I don't mean asparagus now. I mean all the time, from the beginning of the season to the end.

                                    1. re: jjjrfoodie

                                      Correct on the no-flowering part. Once basil is let to flower, the menthol-like flavor compounds dominate its flavor. Pinch ruthlessly, and frustrate the plant mercilessly in that regard.

                                      1. re: Karl S

                                        In this regard, I love my so-called greek basil plants, which are very tall with multiple branches and never go to bloom. I love the flavor of the small leaves, and one plant produces a huge number over the season. But its a little bit spicy and not really pesto basil.

                                  2. Pesto is easy, but you need good ingredients and a good blender. A high Cuisinart makes it easy, otherwise, chop your garlic very, very fine. Processed Parm, is very different from fresh parm. from old parm. Makes a big difference.

                                    1. You can't make pesto with what you have, but you can make a nice sauce of pomodoro e basilico.

                                      1. Hi Foxspirit -

                                        Lessons from Genoa and the Cinque Terra on Pesto. Note that in both locations I was told that there is a different recipe for Pesto in each home.

                                        1. Don't use a large bunch of Basil. Use only the younger and smaller leaves, (photo) and remove the stems.
                                        3. Mash the mix using a mortar and pestle. We used a stainless bowl and a large pestle, but the traditional was marble, and very stained.
                                        4. Toast the pignoli, or pine nuts, quickly in a pan.
                                        5. Use the best garlic, best Parmigiano-Reggiano grated from hard cheese added last ( not the grated cheese in the market), and the best olive oil you can find.

                                        I hope this is helpful.

                                        What we made there, we ate there within an hour. None was refrigerated or left over, and it was excellent.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: SWISSAIRE

                                          none of the recipes I saw in the region last year (including at the annual pesto e dintorni festival) or that I have seen in regional cookbooks have involved toasting of the nuts. But as you say, its personal. It may be that mild toasting of the nuts (not browning) would be a freshening step for stale nuts..

                                          regarding the basil, in the region shade grown is preferred (I think it reduces the mintiness) and small leaves as noted, but see below. ive started growing my basil in the shadier parts of my garden - of course the plants dont get so big. So many times the basil we buy in US farmers markets is grown by the farmers to its maximum size, and its coming into bloom.Since the flowers and the small leaves on the blooming head (as well as the stems are bitter, these need to be avoided when stripping leaves for pesto.
                                          Its definitely better to harvest before the basil reaches the blooming stage, and if you are growing it, to pinch out blooming structures (when the leaves start getting smaller, that means the blooming heads are beginning to form).before it reaches this point. That alone will greatly improve the flavor of your pesto.