"Basil originated in Asia and Africa but it is present all over the Mediterranean, and found a habitat in Italy in the climate and soil of Liguria," explains Sydney's Lucio Galletto. "It is there that the best of many varieties grow, and the Ligurian people learnt quickly how to use it gastronomically in the noblest way: pesto. This symbol of Ligurian cucina has very ancient origins: its roots are in an oriental sauce (Arabic or Persian) that was based on a mixture of pine nuts and fresh acidic cheese. Throughout the centuries, oil and basil were added to these ingredients, and the fresh cheese was substituted with grated parmesan and Pecorino because of the abundance of these ingredients in the region. The great debate is about the strength of the sauce: the amount of garlic used and the sharpness of the Pecorino. In the Riviera di Levante, near the Tuscan border (where this recipe is from), it is quite a mild sauce, and traditionally served with a durum wheat pasta such as trenette or spaghetti, with green beans and potatoes. Other types of pasta that can be served with pesto include trofie (little dumplings of wheat and chestnut flour, without egg) or gnocchi, mandili de sea ('silk handkerchiefs'; very fine fresh rag pasta). Purists may insist on using a stone mortar and a wooden pestle, but today almost everybody uses a blender, which gives excellent results. It is essential, however, not to overheat the oil, as this ruins the aroma of the basil, so minimum speed and frequent pauses for cooling are necessary."
- 300 gm green beans, trimmed
- 1 large waxy potato (such as Desiree), peeled and diced
- 400 gm dried trenette (see note)
- 40 basil leaves
- 1 clove garlic
- 50 gm pine nuts (1/3 cup)
- 2 tbsp finely grated parmesan
- 1 tbsp finely grated Pecorino Sardo
- 60 ml extra-virgin olive oil (¼ cup)
- 2 tsp butter
- 1Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, add beans and potatoes and return to the boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente.
- 2Meanwhile, carefully wash basil leaves and pat dry. Place garlic and a pinch of sea salt in a mortar and, using a pestle, crush to a paste, add basil and continue pounding, then add pine nuts and cheeses and pound to a smooth paste. Transfer to a bowl and stir through olive oil. If using a blender, pulse all ingredients on lowest speed until pesto is creamy.
- 3Drain pasta, beans and potatoes, reserving some of the cooking water. Place pesto into a large mixing bowl and combine with pasta, 2 tbsp reserved cooking water, beans, potatoes and butter. The sauce is used only ‘a crudo’, that is, not cooked, so when adding to pasta it must be mixed off the heat. Serve immediately.
Note Trenette is a narrow, flat pasta, thicker than linguine, that is traditionally served with pesto.