The classic Italian pesto is a rich, aromatic paste of basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and olive oil. Traditionally prepared with a mortar and pestle, it's served with pasta and thinly sliced boiled potatoes, or as a flavoring for soups.
But pesto variations abound, in Italy and around the world.
Some Italians chop the ingredients and, in autumn, substitute walnuts for pine nuts. In northern Spain, pesto finds its counterpart in Catalan cuisine, where a "picada" includes pounded pine nuts, almonds and hazelnuts mixed with garlic, parsley and olive oil. In southern France, tomatoes are pureed along with basil, garlic and oil to make "pistou," a sauce that is stirred into soups just before serving.
American chefs play with pesto as well. The basics of oil, nuts and fresh herbs are stretched to the limit, and thus are born such creations as a cilantro pesto with peanuts, spinach pesto, green chili pesto and sun-dried tomato pesto.
The pungent paste has become an extrovert, showing up on pizzas, spread on bagels with cream cheese, incorporated into stews and sauces, spooned onto grilled fish or enchiladas or combined with yogurt for salad dressings.
This simple, fragrant and versatile sauce could not be easier to make. The blender and food processor produce a smooth sauce in no time.
But try making pesto at least once with a mortar and pestle. The escalating aromas and the methodical grinding elicit a true sense of culinary achievement, something lacking when making pesto by machine. The mortar and pestle also produce a coarse, uneven sauce some cooks find appealing.
If you grow basil, pesto is an excellent way to preserve this aromatic herb. Most pestos, topped with a film of oil and tightly covered, will keep in the refrigerator for about a week or in the freezer for four to six months. (If the pesto will be frozen, leave out the cheese and mix it in just before serving.)
Follow the American chefs and experiment with flavored pestos throughout your cooking. The choice of oil, nut and herb is wide open. If you have a shortage of basil, try using half parsley and half basil; or try spinach leaves. Mint makes a pesto to accompany lamb. Experiment making dill or parsley pesto.
For a stronger cheese taste, use Pecorino cheese instead of Parmesan. The options are yours. Following are recipes for inspiration.
The first two recipes are from "Cooking From the Garden" by Rosalind Creasy (Sierra Club Books, $35). The first, a basic recipe, comes from Paul Bertolli of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.
Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups.
This basic recipe is from "Cooking from the Garden," by Rosalind Creasy (Sierra Club Books, $35). It comes from Paul Bertolli of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.
3 cloves garlic (or more to taste)
2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 to 1 cup olive oil (divided use)
3 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese (or 2 ounces Parmesan and 1 ounce Romano)
In a blender jar or food processor, combine garlic, basil leaves, nuts, salt, pepper and 1/2 the oil. Puree, slowly adding remaining oil.
Transfer to a bowl and add grated cheese, mixing thoroughly. Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap, because pesto turns brown if exposed to air.
Note: If using mortar and pestle, place nuts and garlic in the mortar and grind them to make a paste. Add the basil leaves a few at a time, continuing to make a paste. Add the oil a little at a time as you continue to grind. When you have a smooth paste, add the cheese, salt and pepper; combine with a spatula.
Cilantro pesto with peanuts
Makes 1 1/2 cups.
This recipe is from "Cooking from the Garden," by Rosalind Creasy (Sierra Club Books, $35). It is a spicy sauce to use on fresh pasta, in soups or to flavor meat dishes. If you make it in a blender, double the amount of cilantro. Make this pesto only a few hours before using, as the flavors deteriorate rapidly.
4 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons roasted, unsalted peanuts
1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
1/2 fresh jalapeno pepper (seeded if desired)
6 ounces ( 3/4 cup) peanut oil or 3 ounces each peanut and cottonseed oil
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
salt to taste
Place butter and peanuts in a food processor; process until pureed. Add cilantro and jalapeno pepper; process briefly until incorporated. Drizzle in all of the oil while machine is running. Add Parmesan and salt. Process briefly. Remove from work bowl and cover until ready to serve.
Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups.
Spinach gives the pesto in this recipe a mild flavor. It's from "The Taste of Summer," by Diane Rossen Worthington (Bantam Books, $19.95).
2 medium garlic cloves
1 1/4 cups fresh basil (about 1 medium bunch)
1 cup fresh spinach
1/4 cup parsley
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, process the garlic cloves until pureed. Add the basil, spinach and parsley and process until finely chopped. Add the pine nuts; finely chop. With the blades turning, slowly pour in the olive oil in a fine stream and process until the oil is absorbed. Add the pepper. If using Parmesan, add it just before serving and process until well-blended. Taste for seasoning.
Anne Greer's green chili pesto
Makes about 1 to 1 1/2 cups.
This recipe is from "Cooking With the New American Chefs," by Ellen Brown (Harper & Row, 1985). A Southwest cuisine expert, Anne Greer, spoons it onto fresh oysters on the half-shell, then places them on a grill for 5 to 7 minutes to warm. Spread the same pesto on nacho chips, topping it with coarsely chopped, cooked shrimp and shredded Monterey Jack cheese; broil until the cheese melts.
2 cloves garlic, peeled
4 ounces Parmesan cheese, about 1 cup grated
6 mild green chilies, or 2 (4-ounce) cans mild green chilies, drained
1/2 to 3/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup parsley or 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
2 to 3 tablespoons safflower oil
Using a food processor fitted with a steel blade, start the motor and drop the garlic and cheese through the feed tube. Process until the cheese is finely grated. Remove the stems and seeds from the chilies and discard them. Add the chilies to the work bowl, along with the nuts, parsley or cilantro and oil. Process until the mixture is a smooth paste.