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The Key to This Creamy, Thick Pesto? A Mortar and Pestle.

Category: Food & Drink,Lifestyle

Silk scarf tied around her neck just so, Caveri proudly showed off her marble mortar, which her great-grandmother acquired sometime before 1870. And then we got to work. She started with a handful of pine nuts, left raw to preserve the faint sweetness that recedes with toasting. With the kind of elegance only a chic Italian grandmother can lend to bashing small, slippery nuts, she pounded them into a paste that resembled a pale, creamy peanut butter. Then she added a couple handfuls of tender Genovese basil leaves, a clove of garlic and some coarse salt to provide the friction needed to break everything down. She kept pounding and grinding. As the basil disintegrated, releasing its exquisite aroma, the sauce began to transform in a way I’d never seen. Before Caveri had even added any olive oil, the oil from the nuts began to blend with the minuscule amounts of water the basil leaves released. The constant rap of the pestle jostled the two into a emulsion, neither oil nor water but a creamy third thing made of both. I’d only ever considered pesto to be a cousin of herb salsa, made of distinct ingredients, each broken down separately and then combined into a loose, oily condiment. But the way Caveri was working everything together in the mortar at once, I realized pesto was something else entirely: a thick, creamy sauce.

“It’s just a question of patience,” Caveri, 73, said in Italian, continuing to pound and stir with the pestle as the afternoon sunlight bounced off her rings. She confessed that my request for a cooking lesson had prompted her to resume using her mortaio after years of using a blender, or buying prepared sauce. “No one makes pesto like this anymore,” she said. Caveri’s soft hums of pleasure, a sign of approval in the universal language of grandmothers, made my heart jump.

Next, we stirred in the cheeses — two parts Parmesan to one part saltier pecorino — and began to drizzle in oil Caveri and her family pressed from homegrown olives a month or so earlier. Caveri never stopped stirring, and the pesto continued to reveal just how creamy it could get. We tasted for salt, cheese and garlic, but the sauce didn’t need much tweaking — it was extraordinary. “It’s starting to give me satisfaction,” Caveri said, using a phrase that’s indescribably more meaningful in Italian than in English. I beamed. The entire process took about eight minutes. Maybe 10. The pot of pasta water we put on before we started hadn’t even come to a boil yet. Once it did, we cooked trofie, the corkscrew shaped pasta traditionally paired with pesto in Liguria, and stirred in spoonfuls of sauce, a little pasta water and a few more drops of Caveri’s oil. As we mixed it all together, the thick sauce coated the noodles in a way I’d never seen pesto do. I took a bite. It tasted as it looked — like a unified whole, greater than the sum of its parts. Whereas every other pesto I’d ever eaten gradually separated into its individual components as I made my way through a bowl of pasta, leaving a puddle of flavored olive oil behind, this sauce — creamy, nutty, fragrant and sweet — clung to the trofie. It was a revelation.

I knew then that I could never make pesto any other way. In the year since, the mortar has taken up permanent residence on my countertop, and I haven’t been tempted once by the food processor. I recently visited Caveri again, and asked if she’d been converted as well. “I prefer the mortar,” she said. “It enhances the scent of the basil and garlic. But when my whole family — more than 20 of us — gather, I do give in to the temptation of the blender.”

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