NOTE: An updated version of this recipe appears in my cookbook, The Ancestral Table.
Pesto has an interesting history. Its name comes from a Genoese (Northern Italy) word that means to crush or pound, implying the use of mortar and pestle. In fact, the English word “pestle” has the same root. While pastes have been used in Italy since the Ancient Roman times, basil wasn’t introduced until later, from Africa (via India), and the modern interpretation of basil pesto dates back only to the 19th century. In fact, pesto didn’t even gain popularity in the United States until the latter half of the 20th century.
Basil pesto is great because it is a fool-proof way to spice up many pasta dish, or even sautéed vegetables. I often add a spoonful of it to many sauces, including alfredo or spaghetti sauce (blasphemy, right?) for a subtle extra kick.