Fresh for the Pesto Garden

Herbal harvest adds exciting taste to culinary paste.

| June/July 2003

  • Basil is exceptional, but other herbs, such as chervil, chives, cilantro, marjoram, mint, sage or sweet savory, also work well in pesto.

  • Freshly grated Parmesan, Romano or pecorino cheeses are superb additions to pesto.
  • Whether using olive oil or substituting another oil such as walnut, use the best-quality oil you can find.
  • You can grow many varieties of fresh garlic or buy it at your local farmers’ market.

  • Adding walnuts or pecans to your pesto makes for a fairly intense flavor; almonds and cashews are a more reserved addition.

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.

• Classic Pesto
• Arugula Pesto
• Green Garlic Pesto
• Sun-dried Tomato Pesto 

Choosing Ingredients

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.

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