Pesto is more than a sauce. It’s a simple method that can help you turn those extra herbs and greens that you hate to go to waste into silky, cheesy, green goodness. That’s how the Italians have been making pesto for centuries. Yes, there is absolutely a genuine pesto recipe that hails from Liguria, Italy. But if you ask any good home cook from the Mediterranean what they put in their pesto, I’ll guarantee you they’ll tell you its whatever grows in abundance in their region and tastes fantastic.
When a recipe is truly simple, it’s normal to be afraid of messing it up. Here’s the good news. Pesto is very forgiving. All you need is a good sense for the base of what makes a good pesto, and then you can start experimenting throughout the year to make fast and easy pesto any night of your busy week.
Before we even get into the ingredients, let’s discuss taste.
Pesto is always delicate but with a slight bite. Thus, the majority of a pesto really is the herbs or greens. Just enough of the most young, juicy garlic will help add the bite. Coating the greens and herbs in olive oil will add that silky texture and keep the greens from oxidizing after being cut with a blade or pestle. Coarse sea salt helps those herbs break down and release their beautiful oils and flavors. Lastly, the cheese is the finishing touch, making the sauce creamy and savory. So often what ruins a good pesto for me is a heavy hand on the garlic. Remember, the garlic is for a slight bite, not a punch!
Let’s talk ingredients. Traditional pesto is made with six ingredients:
Traditionally, pesto is made with a mortar and pestle. The name pesto comes from the verb pestare. Italians all have their own idea about the order to put the ingredients in the mortar and pestle. This fantastic article in Saveur outlines one such way: garlic first, then pine nuts, then basil, then coarse sea salt (helps crush the leaves), a stream of olive oil, and lastly cheese to help the sauce turn silky—first Parmigiano-Reggiano, and then some aged pecorino at the end.
When I make pesto in a food processor, this is the order I suggest:
- Grind the nuts and cheese together.
- Add your cloves of garlic next. When I make pesto with just basil, I often leave the garlic out. That’s personal preference. I find that kids like the more delicate flavor better than the raw garlic taste.
- Slowly add the basil or other herbs and greens along with a generous coating of olive oil to coat them and a pinch of coarse sea salt.
- Pulse. Then gently push down the herbs into the sauce and add some more herbs and more olive oil and pulse some more.
- Taste. See what’s missing. Does it need more salt, more cheese, or more herbs?
- Finally, when I store my pesto in a mason jar, I always top it off with a nice generous coating of olive oil to keep the color a nice bright green and reduce the chance for oxidation.
What’s also really helpful to me is to observe the ratio of each ingredient in a batch I particularly like. Often, I go back to my standard pesto recipe from the Joyful 12 and keep the same ratios as I mix up the ingredients that go into the herbs, greens, and nuts categories.
Create Your Own:
The way to get creative with your pesto is to use whatever nuts you have on hand and a combo of herbs and greens, keeping all the other standard pesto ingredients the same.
Here are a few combos we love playing with in our joyful kitchen:
- Collard greens (blanched first), basil and cashews
- Cilantro and pumpkin seeds
- Basil, spinach and walnuts
- Arugula, basil and walnuts
When you make fresh pesto, plan to put it on everything before it goes bad. If the first night you have it on pasta, then try it on a baked sweet potato the next night. We also love to slather it on some delicious gluten free sourdough bread with fresh mozzarella. Pesto is a fantastic and healthy condiment for soups, pizzas, you name it! And if you don’t think you’ll use it right away, then put part of the batch in the freezer. Remember to seal it well, coat the surface with olive oil, and expect it to last no more than a month. We even love to put it into ice cube trays!
Here’s to your family diving into a whole mess of summer pestos and having a blast while experimenting with your own crazy and wonderful flavor combinations.