Pesto Without a Food Processor

Time was running short.

I’d grown basil every summer for six years, thinking, oh, boy, I can’t wait to try making pesto! But I'd never used more than a few sprigs for roasted tomatoes or chicken. Now, with the chilly nights of late summer rapidly approaching, my basil’s rich green leaves would soon turn a pale, sickly lime, dotted with brown spots. Then the plants would curl up their toes and my chance to make basil pesto would vamoose.

Not this time, I vowed. Besides running out of summer, though, I had another obstacle to pesto-making: no food processor. Which was required for every pesto recipe I’ve ever read. I never missed having a blender or processor--I aim for DIY rather than kitchen gadgets. But I’d recently inherited a lovely marble mortar and pestle from my sweet mother-in-law, and just harvested an abundant crop of garlic. Now, armed with a recipe in the July “O” magazine, I had no excuses.

I plucked several handfuls of basil, gently washed it (a few ants were hanging around), and tore the leaves off the stems. I carefully measured it to make two cups. I peeled and minced five cloves of garlic, then roasted and finely chopped a cup of walnuts (Don’t much care for pine nuts, plus they’re really expensive. And I really like walnuts.) I started with a few basil leaves in the marble bowl of my mortar and pestle, and started grinding vigorously. After several minutes, all I had to show for it was some bruised basil leaves. This could take a really long time.

I dug out John's hand immersion blender, that I use a couple of times of year to puree winter squash for “pumpkin” pie. I piled the basil, along with the garlic and walnuts, into a bowl. The recipe called for a ½ cup of olive oil, a teaspoon of salt, and another of sugar, none of which sounded right to me. Foregoing the sugar altogether, I put a pinch of sea salt into the mixture, added a quarter cup of extra-virgin olive oil (1/2 cup seemed like too much too), and fired up the blender.

Well, I worked my ingredients until my arm was sore, but I had nothing that quite resembled a “paste”—just some mooshed up basil. The walnuts and garlic was still pretty intact. Plus the blender was majorly overheating. I’d just have to work with what I had. I boiled up some organic pasta, drained it, and swirled some olive oil into it. Feeling my confidence ebb, I piled the lumpy mixture into the pasta, along with a handful of grated Dubliner cheese. If my experiment tasted as awful as it looked, I’d just wasted all those wonderful fresh ingredients, plus an hour that I could have spent outside, tending Berryridge Farm.

With trepidation, I swirled a forkful of spaghetti, and took a bite. It was like an explosion of flavor! It was like I’d never tasted anything so rich, garlicky, zesty, herby, nutty. I savored every mouthful, and had seconds to boot. I figured I’d have the worst garlic breath ever, but maybe the greens of the basil and the oil had mellowed the garlic. It was, hands-down, the best meal I’d eaten in a long time. A whole teaspoon of salt and sugar would have probably ruined it. Since then, I’ve made my simpler living basil “pesto” three times, and it’s become one of our favorite go-to summer meals.

Then I discovered The Barefoot Contessa makes a similar dish with greens or herbs, nuts, garlic and olive oil—not processed but simply chopped then mixed. It’s called “gremolata.” Who knew?

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