Pesto verde

According to various news outlets, output of olive oil across Italy and Spain has decreased dramatically due to a poor harvest in 2014.

As a result, the wholesale price is increasing, having a knock on effect for shoppers, who are now stocking up on supplies. In many cases, a 500ml bottle of good extra-virgin olive oil will cost about the same amount as a cheap bottle of supermarket wine; coming in at around the £5 mark.

With this in mind, I thought I’d do an olive oil blog post before things turn too sour, and turn my attention to one Italian dish famous for it’s use of extra-virgin olive oil: Pesto verde, or green pesto.

Basil pesto leaves

Fragrant basil leaves

Pesto is very much a household name in the UK now. As well as its use as a pasta sauce, you’ll also find it to be a great sauce to have with grilled meat, white fish or salmon (see my pesto topped salmon recipe).

It also goes well in a salad of mushrooms, artichokes, tomatoes and crunchy greens and you’ll often find that “chicken and pesto sandwiches” are a dime a dozen these days.

This vibrant green Italian sauce/paste is traditionally derived from basil leaves, but you can easily adapt it to work with parsley, rocket, coriander or even spinach. Whatever the choice, once the leaves are combined with fresh lemon and extra-virgin olive oil, the end result always has a nice zip to it.

Pine nuts

Pine nuts

There is a slight conundrum over the type of nuts used, however; toasted pine nuts (pictured right) being the traditional choice. These small, pebbly nuts are like little tear drops, and have a richer flavour than, say, hazelnuts or almonds. When combined with basil, not only do the nuts give pesto it’s body and substance but also a lovely creaminess and a nutritional source of fats and protein.

I remember the first time I tried green pesto; it was around eight years ago, in an Italian restaurant named Est Est Est on Edinburgh’s George Street. Regrettably this eatery is now closed down but the pesto itself left a lasting impression on me – and not in a positive way. It was a simple dish of linguine and pesto verde (green pesto) but I found the taste very acerbic, overpowering and even sour. I needed some sort of protein, like grilled chicken, to absorb some of the intense flavours.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve tried to adapt my own recipe for pesto, and have found that it goes best with meat or fish, rather than just pasta on it’s own.

With pesto, it’s always a case of experimentation. For instance, adding a bit more cheese or oil until you are happy with the taste and consistency. Adding a squeeze of lemon juice at the end to give it a little twang it sometimes nice, but it’s not essential. My advice is to keep “tasting as you go”, to avoid one ingredient overpowering the rest.

Let’s get cracking.

Penne with pesto verde (green pesto)

Penne pasta with pesto

Ingredients:

Basil pesto ingredients

ingredients – (clockwise from left) grated parmesan cheese, pine nuts, lemon, extra-virgin olive oil, basil, garlic

  • 350g penne pasta
  • 60g parmesan cheese, grated
  • 50g pine nuts,
  • 1/2 lemon, juice only
  • 150ml extra-virgin olive oil,
  • A handful of basil leaves,
  • 1 garlic clove,
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Rocket leaves, to garnish (optional)

Directions:

  • Cook the penne pasta according to packet instructions.
  • Heat a small pan over a medium heat and carefully dry fry the pine nuts for about 10 minutes.
  • Pound the garlic, salt and basil leaves in a pestle and mortar, or pulse in a food processor, to make into a paste.
  • Add the pine nuts to the mixture and pound again.
  • Turn out into a bowl and add half the Parmesan.
  • Next, whisk in the olive oil and lemon juice until you have an oozy consistency.
  • Finally, as the rest of the parmesan cheese along with the seasoning.
  • Mix with the cooked penne and serve.
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