Pesto: an Ode to Translation

IMG_8842Cooking is all about translating a particular taste into the ingredients available locally, as witnessed by the late Marcella Hazan and her life-long effort to make authentic Italian food from what’s available at an American grocery store. If you read her cookbooks, you’ll notice that she was not bound to the old ways of doing things. Instead, she took the memory of the  food from her homeland and translated it into the food she found in her new country. This recipe for pesto is a perfect example of how she did this. As she noted, the variety of basil that she used in Italy is not available here, but she experimented until she found a way to create the original flavor. She also embraced new ways of cooking, like using a food processor, because a good cook is not rigidly bound to the past.

Succeeding on  the Low-FODMAP diet means adopting the same attitude and finding other ways to duplicate the taste and texture of old favorites. Experiment. Try new combinations. Read cookbooks. Cooking is a creative journey that brings great pleasure, especially when you find a new way to make an old favorite.

For my version of Marcella’s pesto, I substituted garlic-infused olive oil for the garlic and I added a pinch of cayenne to produce the bite of fresh garlic. Use the pesto immediately if you add cayenne, since the spice intensifies if it’s kept in the refrigerator. I love the recipe both ways, but the effect I’m after is what determines the way I season the pesto.


Makes about 1 1/2 cups (360 ml), adapted from “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking”
Serves 6 when tossed with 1 1/2 pounds (675 grams) cooked pasta

130 grams (2 cups/480 ml tightly packed) fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup (120 ml) garlic-infused olive oil
30 grams (3 tablespoons/45 ml) pine nuts
1/4 teaspoon (1.25 ml) salt

60 grams (1/2 cup/120 ml) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
20 grams (2 tablespoons/30 ml) freshly grated Romano cheese
3 tablespoons (45 ml) butter, softened
Optional:  a pinch of cayenne

1 1/2 pounds (675 grams) gluten-free pasta, cooked in boiling water and drained
1 to 2 tablespoons (15 to 30 ml) reserved pasta cooking water

Wash the basil in cold water and dry it thoroughly with paper towels or spin it dry in a salad spinner. Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts and salt in a food processor and run it until the basil is finely chopped and the mixture has a creamy consistency.

Transfer the pesto into a medium bowl and mix in the two cheeses with a spoon. It’s very important to do this by hand. The oil will separate from the sauce if you use the food processor and the consistency won’t be as good as it is when you use a spoon. After the cheese is evenly distributed, add the butter and continue mixing until all traces disappear. The pesto is delicious as is, but if you prefer yours with the spicy punch that raw garlic imparts, add a pinch of cayenne for a similar mouth feel. Be careful not to use too much or you run the risk of ruining the flavor profile. Mix well before taste testing.

To serve, thin the pesto with a tablespoon or two of hot cooking water before tossing it with pasta.

Refrigerating pesto: the pesto will harden after refrigerating, so bring it to room temperature before using, or scoop out what you need and toss it with hot pasta.

Freezing pesto: freeze it without the cheese and butter. Once it’s thawed, mix in the cheese and butter just before serving.