Update from the editors: Here is a video series on the Ciao Italia garden with some pesto tips! Watch Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Say the word pesto to most people, and they have a vague idea of something green in a jar that is used on pasta or pizza. And they would be half-right. About the green part, that is.
Pesto used to mean one thing: fresh basil leaves pounded into a pulp with coarse salt, extra virgin olive oil, walnuts or pine nuts, and cheese, either Pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano. That's it.
Pesto's roots are in the region of Liguria, especially around Genoa. Today, there are many kinds of "pesto" from arugola to parsley to sun-dried tomato.
The word pesto means to pound down, coming from the verb pestare. That's because a mortar and pestle are the classic kitchen tools to make the original pesto. Nowadays, chefs throw everything in a food processor, whirl and call it a day. There's only one problem with this: a food processor really bruises those fragile basil leaves, while a mortar and pestle releases their oils in a much gentler way. This results in not only better color, but also better flavor.
Each year, we go overboard with the amount of basil we plant. I like to grow the small leaf basil that is the basis of Genovese pesto, but I also love basilico napoletano, a huge lettuce leaf sized basil that I use for wraps, tomato sauce, soups and stews. Then there is the Sicilian basil that has a more peppery bite to it. That I use in salads.
One of the easiest ways to preserve your bountiful basil is to gather the leaves and throw them into ziplock sandwich bags. Freeze them for use during the winter months when you need a fresh garden flavor for your soups, stews, and braises.
Here is a little secret about basil leaves: they hate to be refrigerated because the cold causes them to wilt too fast. They also don't like being wet. That turns the leaves brown.