Pesto…Basil and So Much More

—by Emma Onawa, HPC member

For lovers of pesto, few tastes are more pleasing and satisfying than a freshly prepared basil pesto, mixed with pasta or eggs, spread on bread or crackers or, for hard core pesto lovers, eaten purely by itself, with no distracting additions. The classic basil pesto, prepared with fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil is well known throughout the world. Yet, this classic is only one of many varieties of pesto.

Pesto originated in Genoa, Italy, where fresh basil is available year round. The word “pesto” derives from the pestle. Traditionally, pesto was made with a mortar and pestle, which created a silky, chunky texture that cannot be duplicated in the modern blender or food processors. You can make a finetasting pesto in a food processor or blender, however, and it’s easy and fast.

Although basil pesto is the best known, pestos can be made from a wide variety of herbs and other ingredients, including sorrel, mint, cilantro, fennel, pistachio nuts, garlic, chives, kale, anchovies, and most of the commonly used culinary herbs, such as basil, thyme, sage, tarragon, and rosemary. The herbs can be either fresh or dried. Virtually all pestos include some type of cheese, nuts, and oil or cream/butter; and most contain garlic. Pesto can be used as a “sauce” for pasta, a seasoning, or an herb paste.

There are a variety of ways to make pesto, depending upon the ingredients. A food processor works better with fresh herbs and a blender is better with dried herbs, but a blender or food processor can be used for either with good results.

Some tips for making the best pesto:

  • Use the freshest herbs possible, or drieherbs that have a strong aroma. Use only the leaves, anremove any stems from fresh andrieherbs.
  • When using herbs that have leaves with little bulk, you will neea “green extender,” such as parsley, spinach, or kale.
  • Use the freshest garlic possible. Although it is fine to use elephant garlic, it has a much milder flavor than regular garlic.
  • Use freshly gratecheese for the best flavor. Italian Sardo Pecorino cheese is ideal, although not readily available in the US. A blenof Parmesan anRomano Pecorino cheeses is an excellent substitute for both sharpness anmellow flavor. Increasing the proportion of Romano cheese increases the flavor of the pesto.
  • The choice of oil is critical. “Virgin” olive oil is a goochoice, while “extra virgin” olive oil, although an acceptable choice, in overpowereby the other flavors in pesto. “Pure” olive oil shoulnot be used. Olive oil shoulbe purchasein small amounts, since heat anlong storage will affect the flavor.
  • Although pine nuts are traditional, walnuts are a perfectly acceptable substitute anare commonly usein pesto. Milder-flavorepine or pistachio nuts shoulbe usein more delicate pestos, such as tarragon pesto. Sunflower seeds anpumpkin seeds also can be usein somepestos. Discernible nuts in pestos can be very pleasing ancan be achieveby using pulsing until the nuts are well mixed, but not reduceto a smooth paste.

Pesto will keep 3-4 weeks in the refrigerator, packed into small containers. The top will turn a darker green from oxidation. This is normal; stir before using. Use only what you need, and add a layer of oil to the remaining pesto. Pesto freezes well. Use small containers, or pre-freeze in ice cube trays or in heaping tablespoons on a tray, then store in plastic bags. Frozen pesto should be packaged properly to protect it from drying out too quickly. recommend adding the cheese or nuts only immediately before serving, but a completely finished pesto prior to freezing is satisfactory, too. Use

If pesto will be frozen, some chefs frozen pesto within two months to prevent it from becoming overly dry. Plain chopped basil in olive oil can also be frozen in small cups or in ice cube trays for later use, if time is short when fresh basil is plentiful.

For information and recipes: