One of the cruelest things food writers have asked innocent home cooks to do is to make pesto in a mortar and pestle. Yes, I know, Italian grandmothers do this instead of pilates; yes, I know, it yields a texture that’s so silky you want to rub it all over your body and wear it as a dress. I get that. But for most people, the idea of making pesto in a mortar and pestle just makes them not want to make pesto. And that’s a shame! Because pesto is one of the most terrific things you can make at home, especially if you make in the summer.
The formula is so simple, you can just memorize it right here (and I know that pan is dirty, I’ve scrubbed it with Barkeeper’s Friend; leave me alone!). Are you ready? Toast nuts: preferably pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, or — if you’re feeling fancy — pistachios. Set them aside to cool.
Take a hunk of good Parmesan cheese (don’t buy the pre-ground stuff), cut it into cubes, and throw that into the food processor. Pulse until it’s finely ground, then dump into a bowl.
Now, in that very same food processor, place the cooled toasted nuts, a few cloves of garlic (let’s say four?), and a pinch of salt. Pulse until coarsely ground. Then add big handfuls of either basil (which is the most traditional) or, my personal favorite, arugula. I love arugula because it’s a little bitter, a little spicy, and you don’t have to pick it off the stem like you do with basil. I just buy a big bag of it and dump it in.
Pulse that until it’s coarsely chopped up, then start drizzling olive oil in. You drizzle it in (through the tube) until it looks like pesto; at least 1/2 a cup, probably more.
The final step? Stir in lots of that Parmesan you ground up at the beginning.
In the past, I would add lemon juice here to make it zingy; but recently, this exchange happened on Twitter.
I tasted and it had a deep, umami flavor that lemon juice might spoil, so I listened to Carla Lalli Music and stuck with pesto instead of salsa verde.
Then to turn this into dinner, I boiled cavatappi in salted water just until al dente, then lifted into a bowl. I spooned a bunch of pesto into the big bowl, which had a little pasta cooking water in it, which helped the pesto stick.
Then came the fun part: the doctoring up! I had some sun gold tomatoes that were just sitting on my counter. So I sliced those in half and threw those in, along with some stray arugula.
I stirred that all in, along with more Parmesan, and at the very end I chopped up some leftover toasted pistachios and sprinkled them on top.
Now that’s a summer dinner if there ever was one! And you didn’t have grind it all together in a mortar and pestle; you just pressed “pulse” a few times and there it was. Just don’t do what I did and leave the dishes ’til the next day; the pesto really sticks on. I’m going to have to really put some elbow grease into doing the dishes; almost as much as work as making this in a… nah, never mind.
Cavatappi with Pistachio Arugula Pesto and Sun Gold Tomatoes
- 1/2 cup shelled green pistachios
- Kosher salt
- 1 wedge Parmesan cheese, rind removed, cut into chunks (about 1/2 pound)
- 4 cloves garlic, smashed, skin removed
- 3 – 4 cups arugula
- 1/2 – 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound dried cavatappi You could also use any other small pasta shape. Spaghetti would work too.
- 1 pint sun gold tomatoes, rinsed and halved
Toast the pistachios in a small skillet with a pinch of salt until fragrant and slightly toasted-looking. Don’t scorch. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and season well with salt (it should taste like good broth, but not the ocean).
In bowl of a food processor, grind the Parmesan until finely ground. Set aside.
Now add most of the cooled toasted pistachios (save a tablespoon to chop and put on top of the finished dish). Add the garlic and pulse together with the pistachios and a pinch of salt until coarsely ground.
Add all of the arugula, another pinch of salt, and turn the machine on. As it grinds the arugula, slowly pour the olive oil in through the tube. You may need to stop and scrape down the sides. Keep going until the pesto looks emulsified but still roughly textured.
Stir in a big handful of the Parmesan and taste. Adjust for salt and more Parmesan. (You could add lemon juice here, just don’t tell Carla Lalli Music.)
Drop your cavatappi in the big pot of boiling water and cook just until cooked through; taste to know. You want it al dente.
Using a spider tool, lift the pasta into a large metal bowl. (You want some of that pasta water to help the pesto stick.) Add big spoonfuls of the pesto and stir all around until everything looks coasted and glossy. I think it’s better to use more than less here, but that’s just me.
Add a handful of Parmesan, the tomatoes, some extra arugula that you forgot to add to the food processor, and continue stirring all around. Keep tasting and adjusting.
To serve: lift the the pasta into bowls and top with more Parmesan and some of the chopped pistachios I told you to conserve earlier.
Instant Pesto (Amateur Gourmet; a very similar post to this one, but not as pretty and no recipe)
Toss Your Beans in Pesto (Amateur Gourmet; a healthier way to use up your pesto)
Samin Nosrat’s Basil Pesto (New York Times; this is the mortar and pestle version… I will try it someday!)
How To Make Pesto Like an Italian Grandmother (101Cookbooks)