A Dazzling Pesto

We often think of pesto as a jewel-like Italian condiment made from fresh basil. But it’s more than just that—it’s a centuries-old technique (dating back to Roman times!) for making any number of tasty herb sauces. It’s also one of my favorite tools in the cook’s arsenal, because, like a magic wand of flavor, it transforms anything it touches into a… pumpkin carriage of deliciousness?

Anyway. The word “pesto” means “pounded” or “crushed” in Genoese, a language from the Northern Italian region of Liguria, where pesto first gained popularity. That makes it one of the few foods whose name is a perfect summary of how it’s made. Imagine, if you will, a tiny Ligurian grandma, with a marble mortar in one hand and a wooden pestle in the other, patiently grinding together ingredients into a richly textured paste. That’s how they make pesto the traditional way. Of course, modern kitchens don’t always come equipped with mortars and pestles (or tiny Italian grandmas), so we’ll do it a slightly different way: either with a regular ol’ knife, or a blender! (Which is basically a robot with knives. Oooo, scary.)

Classic Genoese pesto uses pine nuts and basil, ground together with garlic and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, but why stop there? You can experiment with many other flavor combinations. All you need is:

  • Something bright and fragrant - like herbs or flavorful leafy greens such as basil, cilantro, mint, parsley, garlic scapes, chives, arugula, spinach, kale. I like to have at least one strong herb in there to give it that nice fragrant kick—so for instance, if you are using spinach (pretty subtle flavor), I would pair it with something stronger (such as basil or chives)
  • Some kind of cheese - Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano are the classics, but you could also use Asiago, feta, gruyère, comté… For a vegan version, try miso paste and nutritional yeast
  • Some kind of nut - pine nuts are traditional but expensive—try walnuts, almonds, cashews, or even peanuts!
  • Garlic - for zing! But optional if you’re already using something garlicky above.
  • Any kind of flavorful oil - this ties it all together into a sauce and helps you adjust the final viscosity. I like to use extra virgin olive oil, unless I’m making it in a blender (it can turn bitter—the mission explains why)

That’s it. Choose one from each category and you’re good to go.

If you need an idea of all the possibilities, someone on the internet has invented an amazing tool precisely for this purpose: The Pestonator!

What can I do with my addictively tasty pesto?

Good question! Here are all the wonderful things you can use it for:

  • toss with some pasta (the obvious answer!)
  • make a tomato mozzarella sandwich
  • serve spooned over steak, pork chops, fish, or chicken
  • mix with boiled potatoes to make the most amazing potato salad ever
  • same goes for chicken salad
  • toss in spiralized or thin cut zucchini, for those low-carb folks out there
  • spread on toast for breakfast or a quick snack
  • or um… eat it with a spoon!

Are you hungry yet? I hope so. Let’s make some pesto!

Tools Needed:

  • knife & cutting board OR blender OR food processor
  • small mixing bowl
  • cheese grater optional if using pre-grated

Ingredients Needed:

  • 1 or 2 types of flavorful herbs or leafy greens such as: basil, cilantro, mint, parsley, garlic scapes, chives, arugula, spinach, kale about 2 cups, packed
  • nuts, any kind about 1/3 cup
  • cheese, preferably hard aged cheese like parmesan about 1/2 cup
  • garlic 1-3 cloves
  • oil, any kind

Lesson Gallery... Yum yum.

To submit your photo, send me an email!

  • Yes! Zoodles are zucchini noodles, they’re really good! Give them a try if you have the chance (you can make them with a spiralizer or a julienne peeler). Thank you. :]

  • Oh wow, this looks so good! Also, something funny is happening with the image EXIF data, so it looks like your pizza is defying gravity. Or maybe the image is actually correct and you somehow managed to make floating upside down pizza! SO COOL. Didn’t know you could use pesto as glue! Nice job Abby and keep up the anti-gravity amazingness!

  • Extra kudos for the creativity! Are zoodles zucchini noodles? Can I just say zoodles all day? Zoodles. Zoooooodles. Anyway, nice job, and love the color. Definitely in the range of jewel tones :)

  • Well done! Cashews are awesome in pesto. I like that they also turn creamy in the blender (if you decide to go that route). They are really quite versatile (which explains why you can make vegan “cheese” out of it!).

  • Woohoo! Congrats on your pesto success! Yeah it’s really amazing how differently it comes out depending on what tools you use. I also enjoy the crunch of the non-blendered variety. I find it goes better on breads because it’s more spreadable.

  • Excellent haiku
    Made me want to eat my screen
    Alas, ’tis not food.

    You definitely get points for hilarity this time, and I’m super stoked that it turned out better without a recipe. That’s the way to do it! :D

  • Oh wow, this looks delicious. I think what you have accidentally created is a fantastic brussels sprouts salad (which happens to be all the rage right now). Serendipity is the way to go! Congrats!

  • Whoa, chopping took forever! The basil kept getting soggy, which made it difficult to cut. Also, using Brussels sprouts was probably not the way to go. Still, the garlic, olive oil, and cheese fixed everything. Yum!

  • Played by the book this time, except for the gluten free pasta. Turned out pretty well, next time will use one tiny clove of garlic instead of two.

  • Okay, I just got home after a long day and it was wonderful to just spoon some homemade pesto onto of ready made pasta. Delicious. Just wanted to share that this pesto tastes better and better.

  • Pasta with pesto,
    Made of almonds and basil,
    Delicious delight.

    Wow, remembering the form of a haiku took some effort. All poetry aside, this was a great recipe. The last time we made pesto we carefully followed measured quantities. This time, with no quantities and only taste to guide us the end result was much better. Guess our tongues know something about what we like.

  • Having pesto in the fridge is like money in the bank. So many things you can do with it. I used basil and parsley. For the nutty element, toasted sunflower seeds and for the chopping, let the food processor do the work. Here it is on sautéed vegetables topped with a hard boiled egg. It is not so pretty, but it was pretty delicious.

  • I wish I could add the picture of the final dish but I figured the pesto is the star and should be featured in my one photo. But I’d like to make a feature request to let me add other photos.

  • Success! I ended up using scapes, basil, almonds and pine nuts. I ran out of olive oil so it was a little less cohesive than I would have liked but I actually enjoyed the more textured quality of this pesto.

    I was wary of making pesto for the first time and especially of doing it with a knife instead of a blender and while it turned out great, it did take a long time to make, a little over an hour to do all the steps. I ate it over pasta with chicken. Yum!!!

  • It never occurred to me that I could so many different things in pesto. I don’t really like pine nuts so I used cashews instead and mixed some parsley in with my basil. Tonight it’s on pasta but tomorrow it will be in a delicious fresh tomato sandwich!

  • We strayed a bit away from the recipe, since there’s quite some allergic people in our kitchen (no dairy, no grains, no peanuts,…). There was no basil on hand so we tried to make it work with baby spinach and pine nuts. The result was just as delicious as the standard Pesto would have been. We’re gonna use it on zoodles, cauliflower pizza, turkey patties, scrambled eggs,… and probably some other things that will come up while preparing dinner. :)

  • Blender failed on us. We took it out and knife-chopped the pesto up until we decided it was good and plopped it on some pizza. We used oregano and chives as our herbs. A bit of a kick. -Abby, age 10