I picked a bunch of basil from my garden and had a craving for a simple pasta with garlicky pesto. But since my counter is the size of a placemat, the bulky Cuisinart lives high above the kitchen cabinet (singular), and sometimes I just don’t have it in me to pull out the stepladder and lug it down. So it occurred to me, of course they made pesto before they made food processors, so what would my hypothetical Italian grandma have done?Pesto, like curry, is a generic term in its mother tongue- it translates to pounded or crushed, because that’s how they used to make all over Italy, using a mortar and pestle to mash different ingredients into a paste. What we call pesto on this side of the pond- basil, pine nuts, parmesan, olive oil- is pesto genovese, born in the same town as Columbus, but different regions have their specialties.
Alas, my mortar and pestle is tiny, so I searched for an alternative online and found several recipes for a chopped pesto- an intriguing idea, and one I was excited to try.
I kept it as simple as possible. Using the back of my knife, I crushed a sprinkling of course salt into a fat garlic clove, then dumped a handful of basil on my board and shaved a hard sheep’s milk cheese over top. Half a handful of walnuts went onto the pile, and then I started chopping everything together, using two hands to rock the knife back and forth across the board. I picked the sharpest knife we have, a shiny curved Japanese knife that came to us as a gift and cut through the leaves without bruising them.
I added another round of basil, nuts and cheese, and kept chopping, every so often using my bowl scraper to push it all back together on the board. Between the smell of the crushed garlic and basil, the rhythm of the knife rolling across the board, and the sound- snip! snip!- I fell into a wonderful trance, watching the pieces get smaller and smaller until I could no longer tell what had started out green and what had started out white.
I chopped for over ten minutes, and when it was all as fine as I wanted it, I scraped the pesto up and put it into a small bowl and streamed in a few tablespoons of olive oil to finish. I tasted it for salt and pepper and added some more cheese. The resulting pesto was fragrant and lively, and dissolved into a million little confetti specks when I stirred it into my spaghetti.
Pesto made by hand like this is a special thing, a labor of love. It is absolutely best eaten the same day you make it, so be sure to sit down and enjoy it with some crusty bread or a glass of something special.