Healthy Pesto

May 2, 1999 - Revised July 2, 2003

Usually a Faux Pas is written as a response to some idiotic interpretation of an Italian dish which seemed, in the mind of the chef/cook who created it, to be calling out to be recreated.   Occasionally however, a classic dish is so maligned and so insulted that we not only see the opportunity for a new "Faux Pas" on The Artisan but also wish that we cold strip the chef/cook of his/her credentials.  Such is the "Good Thing: Healthy Pesto with Mark"  found on the Martha Stewart web site.   The  premise is ridiculous, the concept laughable, and the interpretation of this classic from Liguria is insulting at best.  We quote from the introduction on the Stewart web page

"In many pesto recipes, olive oil is the dominant ingredient.  But according to Mark Bittman, "New York Times" food columnist and best selling author of numerous cookbooks, the flavor of the herb should take precedence over that of the oil in a pesto.   Hence his almost oil-less pesto.........a boon if you are looking to cut down on fat.  Mark replaces the missing oil with water"

Obviously Mr. Bittman must have had a slow news day to dream up this aberration.  First let's clear up the "olive oil is the dominant ingredient" nonsense.  The dominant ingredients are olive oil, basil and garlic.  The olive oil must be a mild oil like that of Liguria or, if one cannot find that, the oils  from Lake Garda, Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio or Puglia are excellent for use in Pesto.   The use of olive oil in either pesto or pesto precursors has roots going back about  2000 years to Virgil, and beyond that to the Persians.  Somehow all of these cultures have managed to make their pesto with oil, and to the best of our knowledge have not expired prematurely because of it.   Additionally, we assume that unlike Mr. Bittman, the ancients understood emulsions...what one gets when oil and water are mixed rapidly.  The formation of an emulsion is perfect for mayonnaise, but seems hardly appropriate for a pesto.

Not content with introducing water into a recipe which does not call for it, Bittman, leaves out a number of essential ingredients, or suggests ingredients that do not make a pesto in the usual sense of that word.   His recipe ingredient list is as follows:

In the first place pesto, as most understand it,  is made with basil.  Can a similar sauce be made with any other leaf vegetable?  Yes it can because the root of the word "pesto" is the verb "pestare = to beat or to pound".  theoretically anything can be beaten or pounded to make a "pesto", but that is begging the issue.

Arugula, a mixture of arugula and basil, lettuce, chard etc, can be used to make a sauce that is used much like pesto, but they are not pesto as it is commonly described.  Look up pesto in any Italian cookbook or culinary dictionary.  Basil will be defined as the leaf  to be used.  In the interests of clarity and disclosure, Mr. Bittman should at least have noted that he is making a vegetable sauce for pasta or cooked vegetables, not a pesto. 

However, as he insists that this is a healthy pesto, we need point out that he has left out pine nuts, or walnuts, and he had not included any cheese.  We understand that he is trying to develop a healthy sauce, but he should know that the cheeses classically used, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano are part skim and ewes milk cheeses respectively, and are relatively low in fat.    Additionally walnuts have been shown to be amongst the most effective foodsuffs in the fight against coronary disease.

For those  who have never tasted authentic pesto, the taste should be of basil and olive oil combined with the pungency of garlic.  There are many pesto recipes, and the most authentic ones use basically the same list of ingredients.  But as Fred Plotkin has amply emphasized in his book "Recipes from Paradise;  Life and Food on the Italian Riviera", Little Brown & Co., 1997:  given exactly the same ingredients, no two cooks will come up with pesto that tastes exactly the same.  The difference is due to differences in the "hand' of the preparer, much like the difference in brush strokes on a painting of the same subject by two talented, but different artists. 

Mr. Bittman claims that his techniques are "particularly geared toward increasing the repertoire and the versatility of the home cook".  Frankly that is a pretty disparaging remark.  Obviously , Mr. Bittman considers home cooks a collection of high grade, dull normals who find mastering such techniques as  grinding the ingredients in a mortar and pestle something far beyond their intellectual, and physical talents.  Consequently, he makes his "pesto" using a blender.  What he fails to understand is that when he "teaches" people these techniques, i.e. blender vs. a mortar and pestle,  he is robbing them of the opportunity to taste pesto as it has been prepared for a very, very long time.  His premise suggests that expediency is the only factor to consider in recipe development or presentation.  Given this, we suppose that next he will suggest simply mashing the walnuts (used in some pesto recipes)  with a sledge hammer as this is far easier than using a lowly nut cracker.

His contention that this is a "healthy" version of pesto is silly.  Olive oil is healthy.   Perhaps the  staff of The New York Times has not had the opportunity to review the literature in the health aspects of olive oil.  Note that an entire batch (one cup) of pesto, when made correctly, i.e. as in Liguria,  contains 3-4 Tablespoons of olive oil.  Thus, making one cup of  a basic pesto [Fred Plotkin's Classic Pesto recipe is given below], and serving 2 tablespoons to each diner affords each diner about 0.70 tablespoons of olive oil --- hardly a health hazard!  The cheeses used are not high in butterfat, and represent only a fraction of the total weight or volume of the recipe. 

The Bittman recipe uses an electric blender to mix the ingredients in his recipe.  (This recipe may be found in Mr. Bittman's book,  "How to Cook Everything" Macmillan Publishing Co. 1998.  Both Plotkin and Anna del Conte in her book, "Gastronomy of Italy", Prentice Hall, 1987, make it amply clear that making this sauce in a food processor or blender, although now done even by inhabitants of Liguria, is not the way to make the best pesto.   It seems that the blades of the blender rip and tear the basil  leaves, but do not allow  the juices of the basil to be released in the same manner as when pesto is make with a mortar and pesto. Additionally, the ingredients are mixed but not thoroughly amalgamated in the blender or processor.  We have made classic pesto in The Artisan kitchen both ways, and agree that the pesto made in a mortar and pesto is better, but we also find that that pesto made properly in a processor is also quite good.  

Plotkin offers 15 pesto recipes in "Recipes from Paradise".  One is a recipe specifically developed for a processor or blender.   Both this and his Classic Pesto recipe are given below.   As noted above, Mr. Bittman's recipe may be found in his book.

Classic Pesto -  from Recipes from Paradise, by Fred Plotkin.

Add the sea salt and a few of the basil leaves to your marble mortar.  Using a wooden pestle, crush the leaves and salt gently but with a firm rhythm against the bottom and sides of the mortar so that the leaves gradually come apart.  Keep adding leaves a few at a time until they are all used.   While the leaves are still partly intact, add the garlic and then pound it too, just until it is mashed and has released its juice.  Then add the pinoli and pound them until they are reduced to paste.  Stir the pestle in the mortar so that the ingredients combine.  Then add the Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano and stir again to combine the ingredients.  Now add the olive oil a little at a time, stirring with the pestle to make a sauce of a creamy consistency.  Some people like more oil, some less so the amount I recommend is a guideline.  Your goal is to have a thick creamy sauce.  If you choose not to use all of the oil, that is fine.   The result should be fully amalgamated, and of a medium bright green color.

The preparation time is about 20 minutes.   The amounts above make approximately 1 cup/22l ml.

Pesto al Frullatore - Blender Pesto from Recipes from Paradise, by Fred Plotkin.

Use the same amounts of ingredients as   in the classic pesto 

Plotkin: "Just in case readers did not fully appreciate the intensity of my message as indicated elsewhere: Blender pesto is inferior to that made in a mortar and pestle, and there is not much extra work involved in using a mortar."

Blender Method: Place all of the ingredients in a blender, except that you should all only one tablespoon of olive oil instead of the whole amount indicated.   Blend at high speed for one minute.  Then lift the lid carefully and scrape the sides of the blender cup using a rubber spatula.  Check the consistency of the ingredients, which should be thick and somewhat creamy.  Blend for a few more seconds if you think the  pesto should be thinner, but don't overdo it.  Remove the contents to a bowl and then spoon in the rest of the olive oil a little at a time until you reach the desired consistency. A few seconds after making blender pesto add a touch of heavy cream, but this is optional.

The Artisan Note: Some may wonder why we are so adamant about this topic.  The reasons are simple.  We believe in helping our visitors understand that there is a correct way to make Italian food and an incorrect way.  This Faux Pas is a perfect example of an incorrect way make a very simple dish.  Additionally, we hope to inspire visitors to at least try the classic ways to make the dishes presented here, as well as the "improvements", we personally find onerous, and judge for yourselves what is best. 

To sum up our approach to authenticity and quality food, we cite a bumper sticker we recently saw" Friends don't let friends eat fast food", and we paraphrase this "Friends don't let friends eat imitations of really good foods."

Last updated on: 06/03/1999 12:51:15 AM