More and more, I’m finding wonderful uses for pesto.
It’s great for adding to bread. Or making a mayo-free version of green goddess dressing. I’ve even snuck it into meatballs and found that it helps keep them moist and bursting with flavor.
Back in March my husband and I visited the best little Italian restaurant and had probably the best appetizer we’ve ever been served. There was a lovely tomato salad with balsamic, burrata, grilled focaccia, and it was all served on a generous bed of the best house-made pesto. I had all but written pesto off before that point. Not that I didn’t like it. But I had written it off as kind of boring. Not this one. This one made me pay attention. And in a mad dash to replicate that pesto, I’ve made approximately 6,742 batches since March.
What follows are some of the things I’ve learned and my favorite homemade pesto recipe.
What is pesto?
The word pesto means “pounded” in Italian and as a sauce, it’s old. Like, first mentioned by Roman poet old. Virgil, who lived from 70 to 19 BC, wrote a sweet little diddy about a peasant farmer making his morning meal. Symilus (the farmer) laking any meat but having possession of cheese “makes himself some other wealth.” A salad of cheese, vinegar, olive oil, all kinds of herbs, and lots and lots of garlic. To my great relief, parsley is mentioned by name while basil is not.
And that is my truest justification for bringing you a “how to make pesto” post in which I make pesto from parsley and not basil. Ancient and obscure justifications aside, let’s talk ingredients.
What are the ingredients in pesto?
- Herbs, You can use any herb you have on hand, like the ones staring you down from the back of the fridge, but don’t use herbs that are so far gone that you’re picking between leaves to see what you can salvage. Because most of the flavor in pesto is coming from the herbs, pesto is a good way to use lots of herbs before they hit the questionable point. If your hero isn’t any good, your pesto won’t be either.
- Garlic is a very versatile ingredient. Add a small amount so that an earthy kick is included but not pungent. Or you can add heavier quantities for that kind of spice you get in dishes like artichoke dip. Another great option is to use roasted garlic. Roasted garlic is sweeter with an earthy umami flavor and less of a hot bite.
- Nuts, pine nuts are traditional. But good quality ones can be expensive. Poor quality pine nuts or pine nuts that have gone rancid can have a nose wrinkling turpentine taste, so feel free to substitute. Some common substitutions are walnuts, almonds, or pistachios. It’s also the norm to use raw nuts as they give a creamier texture to the pesto. Sometimes I use roasted and salted nuts. They tend to give a little extra crunch in a pesto that I like and their flavor has a more pronounced nuttiness.
- Cheese, parmesan in used most often but any hard, salty cheese or combination of cheese will work. I’ve been tempted to use havarti in combination with dill just to see what would happen. But my head keeps telling me it would be a hot mess to use such a soft cheese.
- Olive oil, you’ll want a good quality, fruity olive oil for the best pesto.
- Salt, every dish needs salt. Salt makes food taste more like what it is by helping our tastebuds pick up flavor.
What ingredients can be substituted in pesto?
All of them. With the exception of olive oil. As long as you have the basic ingredients in the right weights, pesto can be as versatile with flavor combinations as it is with ways to use it. Traditionalists hold that pesto should be made of basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and cheese. Then pounded together in a mortar with a pestle. I don’t mind basil pesto. But it’s hard to find packages of young fresh leaves. The older the basil, the spicier it will be. Basil can also become very bitter if picked after the plant has started to create flowers. So if you see flowers in the package with the basil, put it down and find something else. Unless you like spicy basil. Then have at it.
Young basil will have small bright green leaves. It will still have that anise-peppery taste, but the bitterness will be less pronounced and there will also be some minty-sweetness. But I use flat-leaf parsley most of the time because I like the taste. I also like the consistency. Old or young, big leaves or small, parsley tends to taste about the same at any stage. If your looking for something different than your everyday-average pesto here are some combinations to try.
Pesto recipe variations
- The Traditional: use the full weight of these ingredients; basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan, salt, and olive oil.
- Parsley Pesto: use the full weight of these ingredients; parsley, garlic, pistachio, parmesan, salt, and olive oil.
- The Lemon Twist: Use 1.5 ounces parsley plus .5 ounces of fresh fennel fronds, 2 oz pistachio, .25 oz garlic, the zest of one to two large lemons (added with the herbs), 2 oz grana padano, .25 oz salt, and 3.75 oz olive oil.
- Herb De Province: use equal amounts of fresh thyme, basil, rosemary, oregano, tarragon, and sage. The total amount of herbs should be 2 ounces. Use 2 oz walnuts, one large clove roasted garlic, 2 oz comte´, .25 oz salt, 4 oz olive oil. In this batch, the amount of olive oils goes up a small bit because some of these herbs don’t carry as much moisture as parsley or basil.
- A Tropical Twist: Use 1.5 oz cilantro, .5 oz mint, the zest of a large lime (added with the herbs), 2 oz macadamia, 2 oz dry cojita, and 3.75 oz olive oil.
How to make pesto sauce
- To prepare the herbs for pesto, first, wash them under several rinses of cold water. Remove the stems and any leaves that aren’t good. Hold the leaves you’ll be using in a bowl of cool water. This helps keep the leaves fresh and crisp.
- Add the olive oil, nuts, garlic, and salt to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until smooth and creamy.
- Add the herbs one handful at a time, draining out most of the cold water. Then puls the parsley until it’s a large chopped consistency.
- Add the cheese and pulse until the mixture is uniform but still has a bit of texture.
How to store pesto
How to refrigerate pesto: store pesto in a covered container in the fridge for up to a week. If you want to prevent the top from browning you can press a piece of plastic wrap directly down over the surface of the pesto. You could also pour a bit of olive oil over the top to cover any herbs. You’ll have to mix in the olive oil the next time you use the pesto so pour sparingly.
How to freeze pesto: pesto can be frozen in small cubes by using an ice cube tray. Just add the pesto to the tray, freeze, then pop the frozen cubes out and add them freezer bag. Cubes can be pulled out individually for use. Pesto can be stored in the freezer for about 3-6 months. Depending on if the bag has just been zipped closed or if they have been sealed airtight.
How to use pesto
Pesto is extremely versatile. Some of my favorite uses are:
- As pasta sauce. Just add it over cooked pasta and you’ve got dinner!
- As a dip for veggies or bread.
- As a seasoning for meatballs! you can try this idea with my recipe for Pesto Pork Meatballs.
- As a salad dressing. Add a splash of olive oil and champagne vinegar to give it a dressing consistency.
- Add it to a braided bread. Yum.
- Use it as a garnish. Try it as a garnish on soup!
Parsley Pesto Sauce Recipe
Makes 10 oz pesto
Flavor profile: herby, nutty, fresh
- 2 oz parsley, fresh, leaves only
- 2 oz pistachios, raw, shelled
- 3.75 olive oil
- .25 flaky salt
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 oz parmesan, finely shredded
- Add the pistachios, garlic, salt, and olive oil to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mixture is smooth.
- Working in two or three batches (depending on the size of your food processor) add the parsley and pulse until the mixture is smooth but the parsley should still have some texture to it.
- Add the parmesan and pulse again until the mixture is a nice consistency that is somewhere in between chunky and smooth sauce.
- Store leftover pesto covered in the fridge for up to one week.