recipe

Photography: Earl Carter
Photography: Earl Carter
Photography: Earl Carter
Photography: Earl Carter
Credit: Photography: Earl Carter

Pesto & pistou

Annie Smithers is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. Her latest book is Recipe for a Kinder Life. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Credit: Photography: Earl Carter

She says pistou, I say pesto. It is always the same in our house, where there is one vegan and one omnivore. Summer is the season for all the green sauces. Salsa verde, chimichurri, pistou and pesto. In our house, though, we gravitate to the two basil-based sauces, one from Provence and one from Genoa.

It would be wrong to suggest all recipes for pistou are vegan, as there are many variations to which cheese is added, but for this one we use three basic ingredients: basil, garlic and olive oil. The three are traditionally pounded together using a mortar and pestle, seasoned a little with salt and, if desired, pepper. The resulting green sauce is most commonly used in soupe au pistou. This is a delightful summer soup made with both dried and fresh beans (white and green), tomatoes, zucchini, a little potato and a little pasta. It’s reminiscent of minestrone, but Provençal to its core. Pistou isn’t just for adding to soup. It is delicious smeared on freshly baked garlic focaccia and is a wonderful dressing for a bean salad, again with either white haricot beans, fresh green beans, or both. It is also delicious to toss through grilled zucchini slices, or to dress the best sliced summer tomatoes. For the non-vegan in the house, I am also partial to it spooned over some grilled blue-eye or a barbecued piece of chicken. I find that the absence of dairy makes it one of the most versatile of condiments during summer.

Pesto holds a different place in my heart. It always beckons to be tossed with linguini or soft little handkerchiefs of homemade pasta. For most of my cooking life I have been a devotee of the recipe I learnt decades ago from the indomitable Marcella Hazan. The proportions are light on the nuts, perfect with the garlic and there’s the surprising addition of a knob of butter at the end. Now that I am older, and far more invested in the historical nuances of food traditions, I have discovered that butter was indeed an early ingredient and not some flourish Marcella had added. She also calls for a combination of both parmesan and pecorino, the richness of the cow’s milk cheese counterposed against the sharpness and saltiness of the sheep’s milk cheese, and again a historical nuance. Pesto, like its Provençal cousin, was also made with a mortar and pestle. Pounding, pounding, pounding. The results are superior but hard work. The modern food processor does an epic job, especially if you have had a large basil crop and you want to process it in bulk. And while pesto can be used in the same way as pistou, I always end up teaming it with pasta. It’s a delicious, simple dinner. And with a rocket salad on the side, it’s perfect for a summer night.

The simplicity of these two sauces means they rely incredibly heavily on the quality of the raw ingredients. Fresh basil, local garlic and olive oil that is free from any hint of rancidity. Don’t be tempted to make these with herbs that are past it or oil that is a bit old. And a little side note: I have always found pesto freezes very well. Something to pull out of the freezer when the grey months are about and summer seems too far way. In the meantime, make them both often and in abundance. They are the taste of summer.

Ingredients

Pesto

  • 100g basil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 25g pine nuts
  • 120ml virgin olive oil
  • 50g grated parmesan
  • 50g grated pecorino
  • 40g softened butter
  • salt
Method
  1. Place basil, garlic and pine nuts into the bowl of a food processor and puree.
  2. Add the olive oil gradually while the processor is running.
  3. Add the cheeses and pulse until combined.
  4. Add the softened butter and pulse until combined.
  5. Check for seasoning and add salt to taste.
  6. Store in the refrigerator.
Ingredients

Pistou

  • 100g basil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • salt
  • 120ml virgin olive oil
Method
  1. Place the basil and garlic into the bowl of a food processor and puree.
  2. Add the olive oil gradually while the processor is running.
  3. Check for seasoning and add salt to taste.
  4. Store in the refrigerator.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "Going green".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Annie Smithers is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. Her latest book is Recipe for a Kinder Life. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.