what is pistou? How to make pistou along with a chef’s tip on using basil water for gin!
Although many people think that pistou is simply the French equivalent of Ligurian pesto in Italy, it’s not as simple as that.
The biggest difference is that there are no pine nuts in French pistou. The basic recipe is Genovese basil, garlic. But there’s more to it, as it was originally without cheese.
But vegans proceed with caution. Today if you order something with pistou you’ll need to ask about cheese as modern recipes usually include hard cheese like pecorino or parmesan.
Wondering why a French recipe uses Italian cheese? It’s really not so strange. Pistou is a recipe from Nice in Provence. Located on the southeast of France bordering Italy, it shares more culturally and gastronomically with other Mediterranean countries than the rest of France.
In fact Provence wasn’t always part of France. It was originally a Greek colony and then part of the Roman Empire. It didn’t belong to France until the 15th century.
Traditional food in Provence are not the stereotypical rich, creamy French food we know. Instead of butter recipes use olive oil. There are many vegetarian and vegan dishes with fresh vegetables and herbs. Food is much more similar to Italy than say Normandy.
MAKE IT AT HOME: How to Make Classic French Ratatouille
In fact, pistou means “pounded”; however, it is not a French word but Occitan – a Provencal dialect.
What is Pistou? You May Be Surprised it’s Vegan…Sometimes
There are so many variations of this recipe that I wondered… What would Julia do?
So I pulled out Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Sure enough she has a recipe in volume 1. However, it was not what I expected. Julia not only used parmesan cheese but also tomato!
Shocking but not surprising, most European traditional recipes have so many variances there is no one right recipe.
How to Make Pistou
The absolute traditional way to make pistou is to tear the basil by hand and finish with a mortar and pestle. Personally I’m about convenience and so I think its fine to make pistou in a food processor or blender, much to the dismay of many grandmeres.
All of the ingredients for French pistou are vegan, except for the optional cheese. But with good quality basil, garlic, olive oil and sea salt you can make it without missing cheese.
Where you make vegan pistou or with cheese always use great salt – toss your box of iodized salt and at least use kosher. Salt is one of those little things chefs know makes all the difference.
I would use high quality sea salt in this recipe so you get the freshness of the basil and the saltiness from the sea. In this recipe I’ve used this coast grey Celtic Sea salt. You will not miss the cheese if you use great salt. I could serve this to friends and they would just assume it’s pesto with cheese.
The optional ingredients are included in the recipe. Personally I would only add tomatoes if they were in season. And as much as I love parmesan, I think it’s more fitting to use Gruyère which feels more French or any French hard cheese like Mimolette.
How a Chef Makes Pistou
I know this answer because I was about to make pistou when Dave dropped in before service at Loka and offered to help. And I’m happy I said yes because every time Dave watches me cook I learn at least one new thing. Last week making Instant Pot beef stroganoff he corrected how I floured the beef and urged me not to put the browned beef in a bowl but spread out on a cookie sheet so it wouldn’t steam.
Today he asked if we had ice because we needed to blanch the basil before making pistou. Most people complain about brown pesto and pistou and that’s because they didn’t blanch the basil leaves first.
Bonus tip: Don’t throw away the basil ice water – he put it in a container as it’s now flavoured basil water perfect for gin – you gotta love a man that saves you water for gin.
Bonus bonus tip: If you’re making pasta keep the stems as they have great flavour. Add them to the pot of water to boil the pasta in for added flavour.
How to Use Pistou
Pistou is most often used in soup au pistol, a provencal dish which is similar to minestrone with beans and fresh vegetables. A dollop is added to the soup just before serving.
Like its Italian cousin, pistou is very versatile. It’s great on crostini, in a bean salad, on grilled meats or tossed with pasta. It’s also amazing on bread with a poached egg for breakfast.
Variations of Pistou
There are so many ways to tweak this recipe, it’s great with chili flakes or lemon juice. It can be made with nuts (walnuts/almonds/pine nuts/hazelnuts) or different herbs like mint or sage.
So if asks you what is pistou, remember it’s not a lesser version of pesto – it’s delicious in its own way.