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