(Mortar and) Pesto, Three Ways

July 9, 2009


Basics, Dinner, Local Eating, Lunch, Sandwiches, Side Dishes, TASTE Archives

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This spring, I worked as an organic gardening teacher at a Houston public school. It was at once inspirational and terrifying, as most new experiences are. My sister, who has been assisting at a summer camp, recently theorized that children grow up by sucking the life out of everything around them. A haunting way to consider one' s youth, though probably true: I ended each class feeling like a wrung out rag, used and floppy, drained of all capacity.


Fortunately, we ended our experience on a happy note, which is to say, a cessation of my top-of-the-lung instruction and a belly-filling feast. Thanks to a generous supervisor at Urban Harvest, I got my hands on a traditional Mexican molcajete y tejolote—an ancient, granite mortar and pestle and some locally grown pecans. With a block of Parmesan, some homegrown basil and a touch of lemon juice and olive oil, we ground together one of the tastiest pestos I' ve had: never again will I make an herb-based sauce without pulverizing the leaves beforehand. It really does take pesto to new heights of delicious.

When I got home, I made quick use of my borrowed tool. I had to give it back at the end of the week, and, under such extreme pressure, was able to muster a tiny bit of post-gardening energy to roast some tomatoes, grind a few bunches of basil and create a few varieties of my favorite summertime sauce.


I started with a large batch of classic pesto, divided it and added roasted tomatoes to the second half. In anticipation of serving fish for dinner, I added a bit of lemon to some of the plain batch, which gave it a light citrus kick. Making these all at once turned into quite an efficient way to dress up all of my meals for the week, including a crunchy roasted broccoli salad. Second only to the super-spongy eggplant, broccoli is truly the best vehicle for sauces and marinades, given the many branches and crags of each floret. More on that to come.


Basic Pesto:

(Double recipe if you plan to make another batch using this as a base)

2 cups fresh basil leaves, tightly packed
¼ c toasted pine nuts
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
¾ cup finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus extra for serving
Coarse salt

Grind basil (you may have to work in batches) into a paste using a mortar and pestle.

Grind the pine nuts, garlic and salt in a food processor until pasty.

Add the basil and lemon juice and pulse a few times until incorporated. Drizzle in oil and process until smooth.

Transfer to a medium sized bowl and stir in cheese.

Lemony Pesto:

Repeat recipe, adding juice of 2 lemons and 1 Tbsp lemon zest.

Roasted Tomato Pesto:

Add 1 c roasted tomatoes to pesto mixture after adding oil, and before transferring to bowl.

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