COOK: Pesto 101: A Primer for the Adventurous Cook

One of my favorite ways to preserve herbs and greens for use throughout the winter and early spring is to make tons of pesto.  Many are familiar with the classic version: sweet basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) pounded with a pestle in a mortar until it is a thick sauce.   The aromatic sauce is then used to coat pasta or dropped into a steaming bowl of minestrone. It screams Italy, right?

Traditional pesto ingredients

Traditional pesto ingredients

And it should, since it was first conceived in the Liguria region of Italy. Traditionally done with a mortar and pestle, the word pesto originates from the word pestare which means "to pound or grind." 

I love the traditional basil pesto and make enough to use freshly made from mid-summer to early autumn. Just before my average first frost date (Sept 15), I harvest the last of the basil and make a big batch to freeze for winter’s use.  Basil is an annual for those above 45 degrees latitude and in rather dramatic fashion, blackens and faints at the first touch of frost.

Basil leaves

Basil leaves

If you are a pesto purist then the rest of this post may cause indigestion. Stop here and make the traditional basil pesto and be happy.  In my research, I discovered a certain amount of distaste for any pesto creation that differed from the traditional Liguria recipe.

If you are an adventurous cook and you have an abundance of herbs and greens, then keep reading.  

Have you thought about using rosemary, arugula, or cilantro to create pesto?  The basic pesto recipe below is very adaptable to a variety of herbs, greens, cheeses and nuts, creating unique pestos that can be used with pasta, soup, seafood & meats, stuffings, vinaigrettes, even as pizza sauce.

Over the last decade, I have been experimenting with a wide array of ingredients to make a variety of unusual pestos that I use throughout the year. Below is a primer for you to begin your own exploration.

PESTO 101

Pasta with pesto sauce

Pasta with pesto sauce

USES: Pasta, pizza & bruschetta, soups, stews, salad dressing & a topping for vegetables, fish, meat, baked potato, polenta and as a condiment for sandwiches

You will run of pesto long before you run out of uses.

INGREDIENTS

HERBS

Basil, Sage, Rosemary, Savory, Cilantro, Oregano, Parsley, Thyme, Mint, Dill, Garlic/Onion Chives, Tarragon, Roasted Garlic, Garlic scapes (the flowers of hard-neck garlic)

GREENS: often used to moderate some herbs’ intensity

Mustard, chard, arugula, spinach, watercress, lambs quarters, kale, mizuna, tatsoi, sorrel, carrot & beet greens (leafy tops)

NUTS: Use unsalted.

Pine nuts – I love pine nuts but at $25 a pound I use them ONLY for a couple of batches of Basil Pesto

Pine nuts are the edible seeds of some pine species

Pine nuts are the edible seeds of some pine species

Almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, and pistachios bring their own twist to the recipe

SEEDS - use instead of nuts

Pumpkin, sunflower, hemp

CHEESES

Hard: Parmesan, Pecorino, Romano    

Soft:  Asiago, ricotta, cheddar, queso cotija (do not freeze pesto with soft cheeses)

OILS

Olive, almond, coconut

VEGETABLES & FRUITS

Tomato, sweet potato, roasted red pepper, dried tomato, lemon/lime juice, olives, cherries, berries

ADDITIONS

Red pepper flakes, hot peppers (jalapeno), fresh ginger, lemongrass, sweet onion

BASIC RECIPE

2 cups roughly chopped herbs & greens (can include soft stems but not woody ones) - For strongly flavored herbs like rosemary, sage and oregano,  substitute one cup of flat-leaf parsley or spinach as part of the 2 cups.

¼ cup nuts or seeds

1-infinite # of raw garlic cloves (How much garlic do you like? Who has to live with you after you eat it?) The strong taste of garlic can quickly overpower the herb taste so practice restraint.

1/4 to ¾ cup olive oil (more oil for pesto sauce on pasta)

¼ to ½ cup shredded cheese

Salt & pepper to taste

A small squeeze of lemon juice or super small splash of balsamic or red wine vinegar can brighten up the flavor considerably.

DIRECTIONS

In a food processor, blend herbs/greens, nuts and garlic until it forms a dry paste. With the processor running drizzle in oil until the consistency you desire. Add shredded cheese by hand.

After blending all other ingredients in a food processor or mortar/pestle, stir in shredded cheese.

After blending all other ingredients in a food processor or mortar/pestle, stir in shredded cheese.

TIPS FOR MAKING PESTO

  • The basic recipe amounts are flexible – adventurous pesto making requires frequent tasting and experimentation.
  • Use fresh herbs, greens, vegetables or fruits. Dried herbs do not work. Your pestos will reflect the quality of your ingredients. Use extra-virgin olive oil, freshly grated Parmesan cheese and recently cut herbs to ensure the highest quality.
  • The volatile oils in many herbs like rosemary, sage, and oregano can create an intense flavor. Adding spinach, Italian parsley, lamb's quarters, or similar greens smooths out the intensity. 
  • No need to use expensive aged cheeses or olive oils. Cheaper stuff works fine.
  • If pesto is for pasta or to be spread on bread or pizza, add extra oil to thin it out.
  • Cheese can be omitted for a vegan version. 
  • Don’t have enough nuts or cheese? No problem…pestos easily accommodate altered proportions.  Do consider the pesto’s intended use and adjust the texture and flavor to suit your needs. This is the adventurous part of pesto creation.
  • A food processor makes a smooth sauce with a just a few whirls. A blender can also be used but the oil will need to be added along with the herbs. Using a large traditional mortar and pestle will produce a chunkier sauce, take more time and build up your arm muscles but traditionalists claim the sauce tastes better.
  • A few recipes suggest adding 1 T. of soft butter to help with flavor and/or emulsification.  I don’t think it is necessary but give it a try.

TIPS FOR STORING PESTO

  • Pesto can be made ahead and stored in fridge if covered tightly or pour olive oil on top to cover. Some herbs and greens will begin to turn black once exposed to oxygen.  DO NOT STORE MORE THAN ONE WEEK. Botulism could potentially occur in pesto.
Pesto cubes from an ice cube tray. I pull out as needed and thaw in a covered dish in the fridge.

Pesto cubes from an ice cube tray. I pull out as needed and thaw in a covered dish in the fridge.

  • For freezer storage, pesto can be stored in glass or plastic containers but I prefer to scoop pesto into ice cube trays or silicone trays. Freeze, pop out cubes and store in a freezer bag or container. I tend to double bag to keep freezer burn at bay.
LABEL THE FREEZER BAG WITH THE HERB USED.  Yeah, I know you think you will remember but trust me, you won’t.
  • Some pesto makers recommend not adding cheese to pesto that will be frozen.  I break that rule when using hard cheeses like parmesan and pecorino.

  • I know you have seen or purchased canned pesto but the National Center for Home Preservation does not recommend canning pesto sauce. Stick to the freezer method if you want to preserve it.

CREATIVE PESTO COMBINATIONS & USES

Basil & pine nuts or pistachios

Parsley & pine nuts

Mustard greens, garlic scapes, walnuts (great as a burger condiment)

1 1/3 c. Arugula, 1/3 c. spinach, 1/3 cup parsley & walnuts

1 ½ c. Cilantro, ½ c. parsley, & almonds (add 1 T. lemon juice) (try as poultry or veggie topping)

1 ½ c. Dill, ½ c. parsley  & pistachios (perfect for fish or veggies)

½ c. Garlic Chives, 1 c. parsley, ½ c. spinach & walnuts (baked potato topper)

3 T. Rosemary, ¾ c. parsley, 1 c. spinach & walnuts (Pea soup topping to die for)

1/3 c. Sage, 2/4 c. each parsley, spinach & pine nuts (savory squash and poultry topping)

¼ c. Thyme, ¾ c. parsley, ¾ c. spinach & almonds (steamed veggies, veggies soup topping)

1 c. sorrel, 1 cup spinach, 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, 1/2 cup pistachios (soup and veggie topping)

UPDATE:

After publishing this post several readers shared their use of wild greens (often called weeds) like nettle leaves, chickweed & dandelion leaves.  These greens are highly nutritious, offer unique tastes and best of all are free for the picking!

 

A pesto shop somewhere in Italy!

A pesto shop somewhere in Italy!


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