Cooking, Cooking & Eating, Ingredients, etc.

Traditional Basil Pesto

I have run it by my vociferous (and largely self-appointed) editors. And they all seem to agree: my traditional basil pesto isn’t entirely traditional. They seem to feel, perhaps rightly, that the addition of Thai fish sauce and nutritional yeast flakes place it outside the historical scope of Italian cuisine. And they seem to think — wrongly, I assert — that lemon juice in basil pesto is idiosyncratic at best.

But to my editors, I say: nyeh!

Regardless of its history, lemon juice is indisputably good for pesto. Without adding too much of its own flavor, it brightens the flavor of the basil and sharpens the saltiness of the cheese. It balances the creaminess of the olive oil with a little bit of acidity. And strictly objectively (of course!) it ratchets up the yumminess factor — I measure this scientifically — by at least three points.

As to the other two ingredients — well, I concede in the most general sense that they are not historically components of the condiment (spread? sauce?). But fish sauce has a long history on the Italian peninsula: the ancient Romans ate it obsessively — they called the stuff garum. And even today, it’s not uncommon to add an anchovy or two to anything — pesto included.

And besides, in terms of fish sauce — and also in terms of nutritional yeast — I have one word for you: umami!

Both nutritional yeast and Thai fish sauce add a savory, meaty undertone to the basil-garlic combination that forms the main flavor profile of the pesto, making it, if anything, even more irresistible than it already was. It may seem strange at first — foreign, non-traditional — but do try both ingredients before you judge me.

I’m telling you. You definitely won’t regret it.

3-4 cups Whole Basil Leaves
8 Cloves of Garlic
.5 cups Walnut Parts (or pine nuts if you’d rather, but Sarah is allergic)
.25 cups Grated Parmesan Cheese (the good stuff)
1-2 tsp Thai Fish Sauce*
1 tsp Nutritional Yeast
Juice of 1 Lemon
Olive Oil

To the work bowl of a food processor, add the basil, garlic, fish sauce, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, olive oil, and pepper. And spin on high for about ten seconds — until you have a coarse paste. Then add the nuts and cheese and spin, again on high, for another ten seconds.

The result should look like this:

Your finished pesto can be used in any number of delicious applications: on bruschetta, as a topping for chicken or lamb, as a dressing for salad. I, however, am fond of tossing the pesto with a pound of extruded pasta, 3-5 raw heirloom tomatoes (seeded and cubed), and a drop of pasta water. Start to finish, it makes a lovely dinner in about a half hour.


*I would recommend Golden Boy or Tra-Chang brand Thai fish sauce. If neither of those are available, look for the one with the fewest ingredients — and the one with no MSG.