How To Make Pesto, Using That Terrifying Basil Plant On Your Sill

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Hey, remember back in the spring, when your significant other or roommate or own tragic propensity for impulsive decision-making came with you to the supermarket and got all, "Oooh, hydroponic basil plants!" and you bought one and took it home and planted it in a big orange bucket, your head swimming with visions of rich cream basil sauces and stylish Thai curries and sexy Caprese salads? Man, those were fun times. Now it's August, your home is shrouded on three sides by a fucking basil forest, you haven't glimpsed sunlight in a month, and it is time to decide whether to find something to do with all this goddamn basil, or to invest in a fucking loincloth and renounce civilization altogether.

Take heart, Greystoke, because there's an obvious, foolproof solution to your basil problem, and that's for you to grow up and quit being an irresponsible flibbertigibbet already. I think we both know you're not going to do that anytime soon, but in the meantime, do your Vitamin D levels a favor, pluck all the leaves off of your towering basil monstrosity, and make some pesto. A lot of pesto. All the pesto.


Pesto, which derives its name from the old Genoese word meaning to pound, originated as a way for olde-thymey, pre-industrial Italians to combine two of their favorite cultural traditions: making delicious food and venting their irrational frothing hatefulness into acts of grim violence. Traditionally, wizened grandmothers would bring their mortars and pestles to the village gathering place and sit together, merrily pulverizing basil leaves, pinoli, garlic, and cheese in their mortars, softly harmonizing Ligurian folk songs as they worked, pausing only to add a drizzle of freshly pressed extra-virgin olive oil to the mixture, or to loom menacingly over the massacred foodstuffs and screech racist epithets at them. With the advance of technology, the methods of pesto preparation modernized, too; by the 1940s, the charming folk singing would be drowned out forever by the harsh mechanical sounds of Italy's new favorite pesto-preparation tool, the Thompson sub-machine gun.

Pesto has endured in modern times both because it is delicious and because, at a certain point, the sheer fecundity of the basil plant will outpace anybody's craving for Vietnamese summer rolls, and then you will want to tear its leaves off and destroy them, if only to show it who is boss. And then people discovered that you can make this stuff with a wide variety of other herbs and leaves and nuts, parsley and mint and spinach and cilantro, pistachios and walnuts and cashews—no, not coconuts, you fucking moron. Hell, nowadays, people even make pesto out of sun-dried tomatoes as if 1998 had never even ended. All that time, though, the original thing, basil and pine nuts and garlic and cheese, has been the superior pesto configuration—the besto pesto shut up.


Hey, how about let's make some! Let's make some. Ready? OK.

To begin, put on a pot of salted water to boil. Eventually you are going to cook a pound of linguine in it. When it comes to a boil, do that.

While your water is heating, bust out your trusty skillet or sauté pan and toast a big fistful of pine nuts over, say, medium heat, until they're browned here and there but not blackened. Now, you may be asking yourself, "Why do I need to toast pine nuts? This is stupid," but that's only because you haven't yet discovered that your pine nuts burned to cinders while you were standing around asking yourself stupid questions like an asshole. Regular untoasted pine nuts taste OK and produce merely OK pesto; toasted pine nuts taste incredible and produce life-altering pesto; burned pine nuts taste like acrid shit and produce proof that you're incapable of concentrating your attention for two whole minutes. Toast some goddamn pine nuts. Give the pan a shake every now and again to turn the nuts and prevent them from burning; when they start browning, get them out of the pan quickly.

Now, look. Either you have a food processor (or blender) and can do the next part in about 45 seconds, or you do not have a food processor (or blender) and are going to have enormous Popeye forearms a week from now, when you finally finish making your pesto the old-fashioned way, with a mortar and pestle. Either way, you're coming out ahead: quickly prepared pesto, or the ability to impress people by tearing the doors off their cars for them.


(The third possibility is that you possess neither an automated puréeing device nor the Stone Age tools necessary for manually pulverizing some fucking leaves, in which case the next step is for you to slowly and methodically remove your shoes, stuff your socks into them, and leave them on the beach to mark the place where you walked into the ocean forever.)

The point is: make pesto. For this you'll want, say, three cups of tightly packed basil leaves, and three cloves of garlic. If you're trying to dispose of more basil than that, first of all holy shit you really let your container garden get out of control there, buddy, but secondly, see if you can maintain the 1:1 ratio of cups of basil to cloves of garlic. You really do want the final product to deliver the punchy taste of raw garlic, even if you do not think this is what you want because before now you have been afraid of garlic. Today is the day of your liberation! Toss the basil and garlic into your food processor (or blender, or mortar), along with the pine nuts you just toasted, and maybe a few grinds of cracked black pepper. Also! A generous pat of good unsalted butter. This unhealthful and minor-seeming addition is going to make your pesto taste fucking incredible.


If you're using a food processor or blender, dump maybe two-thirds or three-quarters of a cup of grated Pecorino (or Parmesan) (but really, Pecorino) (it's better) (for pesto it is!) (shut up) cheese in there, too. If you're using a mortar and pestle, you can wait until the end of the process to stir this into the pesto—both because it will be easier for you to pound and grind the pesto to a smooth paste-like consistency if there are fewer ingredients in the mortar, and because, if you are using a mortar and pestle, you will probably also have to use a fucking rough-surfaced stone or sheaf of sharkskin or the fucking erosive properties of the goddamn wind to grate your cheese, because you are the last australopithecus.

(A note, here: Many pesto recipes tell you to add cheese only to the portion of the pesto that you intend to eat right away, and not to the remainder that you intend to store in your freezer. There are probably very good reasons for this. Frozen Pecorino cheese probably gives you indigestion or cancer or extra elbows or something. If you want to hold off on adding cheese until it's time to eat, that's fine. If you want to streamline things, add the cheese now and take your chances. You could get hit by a meteor tomorrow. That's not really an argument for doing things any particular way, just a good thing to be aware of. Meteors. Man.)


For you food processor/blender folks, go ahead and turn your devices on. Drizzle some extra-virgin olive oil onto your ingredients as your mechanized device whirs them into pesto; you'll probably wind up using a little bit less than a cup if you're working with three cups of basil and three garlic cloves. Eventually your food processor or blender will have transmogrified these disparate ingredients into a smooth, heavy, gorgeously green paste that smells vividly of basil and garlic: pesto.

As for you mortar-and-pestle types, you're going to want to pound and press and grind and stir your basil and garlic, starting with as much as can fit comfortably in your mortar, working in batches, and drizzling with olive oil in increments as you go. If that sounds like it is going to take the rest of your natural life, ha ha you are a cockeyed optimist. We'll wait.


[Jeopardy theme]



Oh will you just fucking borrow somebody's Cuisinart already.

Eventually, whether you used a food processor or a blender or a mortar and pestle or the two largest, flattest rocks you could find in your cave, you will have pesto, oh yes, by the ancestors you will have pesto. There it is. Green and good-smelling and ready. When your linguine is cooked, drain and toss the pasta with, oh, however many heaping tablespoons of pesto are required to coat it completely. Four or five or six. Twelve. Who the fuck knows. You have eyes, judge for yourself. Time to eat.


Psych! First, sock the leftover pesto into some freezer-safe bags, press the excess air out of them, and stick them in the freezer. Those beauties are going to sustain you through the winter.

OK, now it's really time to eat.

Serve your pasta with lots of wine and maybe a hunk of crusty bread with some good butter smeared on it, for using as an unwieldy and ineffective but nonetheless satisfying utensil for transporting the pasta to your face. Dig in. Your pesto is bright and punchy and nutty and rich and immediately, intensely, wonderfully green-tasting; it tastes like the last of summer. Satisfying but not heavy. The words al fresco pop unaccountably to mind—isn't that neat? The very basil leaves that only this morning blotted out the sunshine altogether are now, in their hacked-up, massacred form, driving you outside to sit in it, and eat, and be happy.


Change out of the loincloth first. You look like a fucking idiot.

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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at


Image by Sam Woolley.