One of the greatest culinary pleasures of summer is pesto, an uncooked herb paste with an enticing aroma and unmistakable flavor. Genoa, Italy, is credited with the creation of classic basil pesto, and the French gave it a twist with tomatoes and called it “pistou.” A regional favorite in Southern Italy adds chiles to the mix of sun-dried tomatoes and basil for a specialty red pesto called “pesto rosso.”
Since its Italian beginnings, pesto has evolved along the way from a traditional paste of fresh basil to a myriad of variations made with aromatic herbs such as summer savory, arugula, rosemary, parsley and mint. Pesto can also be pumped up with cream cheese, sour cream, tofu or other ingredients. As long as it’s an uncooked herb paste made with fresh ingredients, it’s pesto.
Here is a classic basil recipe along with several variations using different ingredients. All recipes are adapted from the Washington Farmers’ Markets Cookbook and Guide (Maverick, 2000), and the Oregon Farmers’ Markets Cookbook and Guide (Maverick, 1998), both by Kris Wetherbee.
At its essence, pesto is composed of five basic ingredients: fresh herbs, nuts, garlic, cheese and oil. Basil is exceptional, but other herbs also make great-tasting pesto — chives, cilantro, Italian parsley, rosemary, marjoram and sweet oregano, as well as arugula, chervil, fennel, mint, sage, sorrel, summer savory, thyme and tarragon. Experiment with different herbs and herb combinations to influence the overall character and flavor of the pesto. Sometimes strong herbs such as sage and thyme mellow when combined with basil or parsley.
Though pesto is traditionally made with pine nuts — a high-fat nut found in pinecones — other nuts can be used to highlight the herb you have chosen. Try walnuts or buttery-rich pecans for a slightly more intense flavor. For a sweeter, more delicate taste, almonds and cashews are a tasty addition.
Cheese, garlic and oil may seem like minor players, but the quality and type you choose can have a major influence on the pesto you make.
• Most any dry, sharp cheese will work fine, but freshly grated Parmesan, Romano and pecorino (made from sheep’s milk) are superb choices.
• When it comes to garlic, skip the dried powder or granules and stick with fresh. You can grow many varieties of fresh garlic or buy it at your local farmers’ market. Some are spicier than others, so experiment.
• Extra-virgin olive oil is considered by many to be the best oil for making pesto. Whether using olive oil or substituting another oil such as walnut, use the best-quality oil you can find.
Planning the Garden
Store-bought pesto can be good, but homemade pesto is sensational. And when you make pesto with fresh herbs grown and harvested from your own garden, you’ll experience pesto perfection. You can grow your own pesto herbs in an area as small as 16 square feet. That’s enough space to grow the following herbs: eight basil, one upright rosemary, two parsley, two sweet oregano, four summer savory and one chive plant. Short on garden space? Enliven your deck or patio with a grouping of container-grown herbs for culinary accents that are always right at hand.
Most herbs can be grown in full sun to partial shade and well-drained soil. A sunny location is best for basil, fennel, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, sorrel and summer savory. For herbs such as chervil that shun direct sun in warmer climates, seek out patches of filtered shade under the canopy of taller sun-loving herbs of fennel or rosemary.
Provide herbs the nutrients they need with a yearly application of compost or aged manure. Annual herbs such as basil need a slightly richer soil for continual harvests, so side-dress annual herbs with additional aged manure or a complete organic fertilizer about four to six weeks after seedlings appear, when plants are about 6 inches tall.
Annual herbs can be directly sown from seed. For summer-loving basil, it’s best to transplant or direct-seed after the soil has warmed to above 55 degrees and danger of frost has past. Harvest annual herbs such as basil frequently to delay flowering. Perennials are best grown from purchased plants, especially if you’re eager for any kind of harvest the first year.
In its origins, traditional pesto was made with a mortar and pestle by pounding the fresh leaves, garlic, nuts and cheese together into a paste. Olive oil was then slowly drizzled in and whisked into a delicious herb pesto. Today the food processor has turned pesto production into effortless fun. Start with clean, dry leaves, and with a pulsing action, coarsely chop herbs, whole garlic, grated cheese and nuts, scraping down the sides as necessary. Slowly add olive oil while the machine is running and process into a paste or the consistency you prefer.
If tradition lures, you can still make pesto using a mortar and pestle. This method is more time-consuming than using a food processor, but some say that pesto made the traditional way has a creamier texture. If you’re up for it, then you can be the judge. Start by first sprinkling coarse salt (sea salt or kosher salt), a few peppercorns and garlic in the mortar. In small quantities, add herb leaves and nuts along with a few drops of oil until you have pounded the ingredients into a fairly smooth paste. Pound in the grated cheese and drizzle in the oil — a little at a time — until you have a thick herb puree of pesto.
Pesto has long been favored as a pasta sauce, but its appetizing versatility has put tradition to the test. Today this delicious herb paste is used in or with a wide variety of dishes. Pesto pairs with any vegetable — fresh or cooked — especially green beans, eggplant, summer squash and tomatoes, as well as most any potato dish you can imagine. Add it to soups, stews and stir-fries, or toss it with a raw veggie salad. Use pesto as a sauce for pizza or your favorite sandwich wrap. You can also bake it into breads and pastries. It’s delicious served on broiled or grilled fish and poultry and is a perfect partner for egg dishes and omelets.
Though pesto is always best when consumed fresh, any extra can easily be stored in the refrigerator. To help preserve its fresh flavor, add a thin layer of oil over the top to keep pesto from discoloring, then store, tightly covered, for up to one week.
For many of us, the urge for homemade pesto remains throughout the year, even in winter. The solution is to make a big batch of pesto for your freezer from your last fall harvest. Spray ice cube trays with oil, then fill the trays with pesto and freeze. Once the cubes are frozen, pop them out into a freezer bag. Another option is to spoon pesto into zip-close plastic sandwich bags and then flatten them out to freeze like a sheet; when you’re ready to use the pesto, simply break off the portion you need. This way individual portions of pesto are always at hand to liven up winter cuisine. Store frozen pesto in the freezer for up to two months.