04 March 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: The Besto Pesto

SARONNO, Italy - You won’t believe who won the last Pesto World Championship in Genoa. Out of a field of more than 100 chefs, most of whom were born in Liguria, a 25 year old Korean-American cook named Danny Bowien was crowned the winner. Danny works at San Francisco’s Farina Restaurant and his secret weapon was that the restaurant’s executive chef, Paolo Laboa, whose family is Genovese, taught him how to make pesto. Not just any pesto but the secret Laboa family pesto recipe that had been handed down from generation to generation of Laboa women, starting with the chef’s great-grandmother.

And now, as I write this, 100 chefs from around the world, professional and amateur, are polishing their marble mortar bowls getting ready to compete in the third Pesto World Championship that will be held in Genoa on March 20, 2010.

Competitors, young and old, will have 40 minutes to prepare their recipes, all using the same ingredients and the same technique, i.e. pounding the bejeebers out of it. Pounding is what pesto is all about. Even it's name comes from the Italian verb pestare, which means to pound, which perfectly describes the basic pesto making technique.

Since all the competitors are all using the same ingredients you’d think they would all come up with the same taste, but the truth is most pesto makers claim to have “secret” techniques, so technically no two cups of pesto are ever the same. And there is a difference. Some pestos do taste better than others. I always thought it was the oil and the quality of the cheese used, but if everyone is using the same ingredients, it must be some other kind of basil voodoo.

If you’re thinking what’s the big deal, how hard can it be to throw everything in the blender and press pulse, read on. Here’s the official competition recipe. 
World Cup Pesto Recipe

 4 bunches of fresh PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) Genovese basil
30 grams of pine nuts (2 tablespoons)
445-460 grams of Parmesan cheese,(a little less than 2 cups to – 2 full cups)
20-40 grams Fiore Sardo cheese (Pecorino Sardo) (4+ teaspoons – 3 tablespoons))
1-2 garlic cloves from Vassalico (Imperia)
10 grams coarse salt (Kosher salt) (2 teasp.)
60-80 cc PDO extra-virgin olive oil from the Italian Riviera (4.2 tablespoons– 5 1/2 tablespoons).

Preparation:Marble mortar and wooden pestle are the traditional tools used to make pesto.
Wash the basil leaves in cold water and dry them in a kitchen towel, but do not rub them.
In a mortar, finely crush the garlic cloves and pine nuts until they are smooth. Add a few grains of salt and the non-pressed basil leaves. Then pound the mixture using a light circular motion of the pestle against the sides of the mortar.

When a bright green liquid starts to ooze from the basil leaves, add the Parmesan cheese and the Fiore Sardinian cheese.

Pour in a thin layer of PDO extra-virgin olive oil from Liguria, which blends the ingredients without overpowering them.

Work as quickly as possible to avoid oxidation of the leaves.

It's best to use your pesto right away but you can keep it in the refrigerator for a few days if you float a little oil on top of it, or put it in the freezer. I freeze mine in small cups and just defrost what I’m going to use, and just as a by-the-way, it is better to let it defrost at room temperature than zap it in the microwave.

Photos: Courtesy of Associazione Palatifini www.pestochampionship.it

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