The Pesto Manifesto
By Kelly Dean
Oh my gosh, people are very serious about their Italian pesto. Some are traditionalist, and some are anarchists. Yet both are passionate about this Green-gu sauce. I had to go to grumpy vegan sites to find alternative pesto ingredients outside of the traditional basil-parmesan-pine nut group.
Someone online actually recommended I use marijuana to replace basil. Wow, thanks, but that’d be hard to pass off as medicinal.
Let me back up a bit.
My traditional pesto recipe is pretty simple. It’s 1 well-packed cup of fresh sweet basil leaves, 1/3 cup of Romano or parmesan cheese, about 2 tablespoons of pine nuts, and 1 or 2 medium garlic cloves.
Add 1/8 teaspoon of sea salt and black pepper, then crush it in your handy-dandy mortar and pestle while adding up to 1/4 cup of olive oil – or until it’s suitably saucy and to your liking.
Then, in a warm pre-oiled skillet, stir the pesto into about 4-5 dry ounces of pre-boiled and drained linguine pasta. This serves one, generously, two on a first date. Easy peasy.
Indeed, there are a few slight modifications to this here and there: maybe the more exotic Pecorino Romano cheese here, maybe a touch of parsley there, but this is my basic, traditional recipe, which is pretty close to everyone else’s recipe.
This spring, my fresh basil isn’t doing very well. I don’t know if it’s from over-watering or if my drunken neighbor has peed on my herb box again, but the lower basil leaves are pale and they don’t look perky at all … kind of clinically depressed … definitely low in serotonin levels … it could be early alcoholism.
I mean my neighbor, not the plant.
The online experts
So I go online – to face the purists – those whose pesto recipe is evidently kept in their family Bible, next to a picture of their sainted mother (may she rest in peace).
The Cult of Mighty Pesto says I should always seek wise counsel from folks whose recipes are completely authentic, historic and blessed by The Pope. Do not seek the so-called experts who think they know Italian cooking solely because they once brushed up against a gardener whose uncle met Al Pacino’s barber at a Pavarotti concert.
According to the many online consigliere with whom I consulted, green basil replacements include: spinach, arugula, dandelion, cilantro, parsley, leaf lettuce, sage, marjoram, oregano, something called ramson — and yes, marijuana, of course, which is starting to look quite reasonable.
I had to look up ramson. Evidently it’s a lovely forest weed that grows in Europe. But only elves eat it, evidently, because I cound’t find it anywhere. And spell-checkers hate it.
Pine nut replacements include: walnuts, pistachios, almonds, cashews, and well, just about any nut.
Never peanuts, though, without exception — never. I’m confused. Aren’t peanuts about as nutty as nuts can be? And, sadly, within my current budget — hello?
No, sorry, peanuts evidently get zero pesto respect unless you’re sitting on a Branson bar stool with a handful of Ozarks goobers singing Tony Orlando’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.”
Although, Tony Orlando is Italian.
Again, most people who are okay with versatility say pick any nut you like – except peanuts – or just bite the bullet and buy the traditional, ridiculously expensive, pine nut. Many go on to say that any major green will replace basil, so long as it has a quirky flavor to your liking.
Purists won’t have it. “How about some lawn clippings, a few acorns and touch of transmission fluid …” asks a smart aleck on Reddit, “ … you could call it pissto?”
The shopping trip
Broke yet undaunted, I head to the store with all that advice. Sorry, I won’t eat bottled Greengu either. That would be like buying pre-made grilled cheese sandwiches.
I already know fresh basil is sold out; it always is; that’s why I grow my own. Regardless, I would have to buy 8 of those little plastic herb boxes to accumulate a cup anyway. That would cost me $16 alone. Sorry, but no. I just don’t deserve the good stuff, evidently.
However, to my surprise, I do find a 2-oz package of pine nuts for a thrifty $4. Glee! At over $2 per ounce, I consider mashing basil and pine nuts into a perfume instead and calling it, “Nel culo Americano!”
So I buy the pine nuts and a $3 bag of arugula, also known as rocket.
I love that name — rocket. I say it over and over, like rocket … rocket … rocket … socket … socket … socket. I sing: It’s easy on my pocket — my sweet little rocket – go rocket, rocket, rocket!
Arugula sounds like a fungal infection. But rocket doesn’t. I could mix it with that forest weed and call it Ramson Rocket.
Try saying Ramson Rocket three times really fast. You sound like Scooby.
Or I can take my rocket and ramson and pulverize it with my pestle and peanuts and call it Ramrock — and invite Fred Flintstone over for dinner.
I’m getting giddy.
Arugula was cheap and on the accepted list, so I left the store with my easy-on-the-pocket rocket grasped proudly in my hand.
The sauce — processor versus mortar and pestle
After long, thorough and thoughtful consideration, which had to be several seconds, laziness wins out and I choose the food processor over the mortar and pestle.
Pesto means to pound or to crush in old Latin Genoese, according to Wikipedia.
Well, I decided the old Cuisinart word for “processing,” which means to wimp-out, to slack, to sloth, to act much like a dead person, to push button with finger — is a language more suited to my liking.
Pounding is violent, makes my head hurt and the grinding noise is just as annoying as the food processor noise, only slower — and lower. It would take like a month to make a kale smoothie in a mortar and pestle.
This why traditions die. They take so much effort, no one remembers why we did them in the first place.
With my rocket and nuts still firmly in hand and a few spindly basil leaves for flavor, I dump my own recipe, endeavor to make a semi-traditional, yet evidently-not-even-close-to-real-pesto, which I brew in my satanic device and mix with incredible piping pasta. It’s pretty good. But unfortunately, it’s not photogenic.
And this, my friends, is my pesto manifesto.