It's official. Our basil is finally growing beyond its little planter, and there's enough to harvest to turn into pesto. Instead of celebrating, mild anxiety kicked in: this has to be the very best pesto of all time. We don't have much of our own basil to go around, so we have to really knock it out of the park on this one.
Coincidentally, last week I came across an article in The New York Times that profiled a small pesto producer in Upstate New York, Buddhapesto. While the article itself explored the ever-growing artisan food movement and the pains that small businesses face when they begin to grow and expand, what caught my attention were the details of how this popular company goes about making their pesto. The tips and tricks are what I used to make our first batch of the season, and I can report back that it was a major success. I used a basic recipe but relied on the tips below and the results were winning.
1. Rely Less on Measurements: This is something that most cooks aren't going to be comfortable with right off the bat, but upon repetition you're going to start to become more and more comfortable with your recipe and allow yourself to tweak things based on how each particular batch is turning out. Maria Gandhara, co-owner of Buddhapesto, rarely uses hard-and-fast measurements these days, instead relying on handfuls and "feel."
2. Learn to Listen to Your Machine: Many people do their pesto by hand, but if you're going to use a food processor (and I do), it's a good idea to learn to recognize your machine's sounds and really search for what Gandhara calls that "pest-om:" the gentle whir that the machine makes when the mixture has really come together. It's a balancing act; you don't want to mix it too much, but you want to mix it just enough.
3. Allow the Ingredients to Shine: Ingredients for pesto aren't inexpensive and, if you're growing your own basil like we are, it seems that much more precious. So you want to make sure each element is given room to make an impact all on their own. To this effect, Gandhara uses raw pine nuts instead of roasted pine nuts.
4. Choose Your Olive Oil Wisely: Gandhara likes using pure olive oil instead of extra-virgin oil to, again, let the truest form of the ingredient shine.
5. Make Small Batches Most of us, when we make pesto, are making a small home batch for a single meal. Or possibly you're doubling your batch to freeze some for later. As with many things, the smaller the batch, the more attention you can give it and the better it will come out. Even though Buddhapesto's operation has gotten quite large, they still use a home-size food processor to blend each batch because they find it just tastes so much better and they have more control of the outcome. So take each batch one at a time and get to know the ingredients and equipment; before you know it, you'll end up with award-winning pesto, too.