I first met pesto some years ago back home in the Italian culinary hotspot of the San Francisco Bay Area mid-Peninsula region. Movie nights with the family would see me inhaling the garlicky green sauce slicked across our local pizzeria’s famous wood-fired, thin crust pizzas, or, less frequently, tossed with a thick tangle of fettucine (when I could be persuaded away from the Alfredo option, of course). Though maybe not the best rendering of this delicious dish, it was pesto as we tend to know it – a blending of basil, garlic, nuts, cheese, and no small amount of olive oil. It was not until many years and several quarters of college Italian later, as well as an intervening proclivity for pesto chicken sandwiches on soft, fresh ciabatta, that the necessary suffix entered the equation. For what I did not realize at the time was that this blissful, verdant mixture is not simply pesto, it is pesto Genovese – a historic dish from Genoa, which packs protein (pine nuts and cheese), and greens (the famous basil from the hills of neighboring Pra) into one, succulent combination. I have no idea how it came to be the proliferating form of pesto (I would lend an educated guess to the availability of the necessary ingredients stateside, although this pesto’s affinity for boneless, skinless chicken breasts – that grand American staple – probably helped as well), but at some point the world outside of Italy came to consider this to be pesto, no surname necessary. As it turns out, pesto is in fact just a description of something that has been smashed and combined – traditionally with a mortar and pestle (who’s seeing the connection here). And, in a pattern that we see across much of Italian cooking, many different regions have their own variation on pesto. Notably, the southern regions, like Sicily and Calabria, spice things up a bit with versions incorporating tomatoes, ricotta, and peppers. And, although I’m not sure if it’s traditional to a region other than my kitchen, there’s always the pesto that I make swapping almonds for the traditional pine nuts, and adding in some sautéed zucchini for extra depth and richness, making it a worthy addition to the pantheon of pestos (pestotheon? Panpeston?).
However, about a year ago, I met an entirely different type of pesto. Almost neon in color, and featuring ingredients that crossover in season at just the right time for it to serve as a harbinger of spring, pesto di agrumi (citrus pesto) was a revelation. Brought to my attention by a friend who staged with the Sicilian chef who perfected the recipe, the combination of oranges, lemons, nuts, and basil is, in a word, delicious. Best of all, it works just as well in a blender, so there’s no need to spend your time pestare-ing your ingredients in a mortar and pestle.
Pesto di Agrumi
2 oranges, peeled
1 lemon, peeled
A small handful of almonds, toasted
A handful of fresh, clean basil leaves
A few healthy glugs of olive oil
Capers, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Place ingredients in a blender. Blend. Season to taste, and toss with long, thin pasta, preferably after cooking said pasta the requisite amount of time in a pot of boiling, salted water. Eat.