We’ve been making a lot of pesto lately. It’s one of my favorite ingredients, especially for lazy summertime cooking. When I have it on hand, I like to dollop it on grilled vegetables, fish, meats, tofu, pasta, salads, eggs, toasted bread, pizza, sandwiches… you get the idea. With just a few easy steps, it makes anything an instant tasty meal whether you felt like cooking or not.
What is pesto, and how do I make it?
Traditional pesto is a blend of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, extra-virgin olive oil, and Parmesan cheese. With a food processor, it comes together in just a few steps:
- Pulse the garlic in the food processor until it’s finely chopped.
- Add pine nuts and herbs and pulse until they, too, are finely chopped.
- Next, drizzle in the olive oil with the food processor blade still running.
- Finally, add grated Parmesan cheese and process briefly until combined.
That’s it! It’s really simple to make, and it’s easy to vary according to the season or your mood. Pesto will keep for a few days in an airtight container in the fridge, though its surface may start turning brown. As a result, it’s best to cover your pesto with a thin layer of plastic wrap before sealing your container. This will keep your pesto fresh and green!
I have little sticky notes all over my kitchen scribbled with the various ingredients we’ve been subbing in (yes, that’s my organization “system”). Finally it occurred to me that I’m not going to send you to the store for a specific pesto recipe. Instead, I’ll share a basic recipe and then offer some ideas of how you can change it up.
Here are some of my favorites…
- Swap out pine nuts for any nut of your choice! I particularly like walnuts and pistachios.
- Use any herb or leafy green. I like a combination of parsley & cilantro, or use part basil and part arugula. Blanched kale leaves are also a great combination with basil!
- Don’t let your stems go to waste. Blanch kale stems and blend them into pesto with basil leaves or another herb.
- Punch up the flavor! Add sun-dried tomatoes, a roasted red pepper, a charred jalapeño, artichoke hearts, etc.
I’m sure there are a million more ideas than the ones I’ve listed here, so if you have a favorite, feel free to share!
Ready to make pesto?
The first thing you need to do is go look in your kitchen and see what you have. Since you probably already have some kind of nuts, herbs, or greens, use those as a starting point. More often than not, if I make a pistachio version, it’s not because I’m trying to be fancy. It’s because pistachios just happened to be the nut I had that day. If I have some arugula in the fridge that’s getting close to its last days, I’ll use that. Since I have two huge basil plants, a basil combo is a common go-to for me.
- 1 garlic clove
- 2 big handfuls basil leaves
- ¼ cup toasted pine nuts
- Zest and juice of 1 small lemon
- ¼ – ½ cup olive oil*
- Sea salt and fresh black pepper
- 1 cup kale, blanched
- 1 cup cubed raw zucchini
- 4 artichoke hearts
- 2 sun-dried tomatoes
- 1 roasted red pepper
- ½ an avocado
- ½ cup stems of green vegetables (boiled until soft)
- Parmesan cheese
- Nutritional yeast
- Red pepper flakes
- Roasted or poached garlic instead of raw garlic
- Splash champagne vinegar or balsamic vinegar (or more if you don’t have a lemon)
- Splash agave or honey, if it tastes too acidic
- Add the garlic to the food processor and pulse until finely chopped.***
- Add the basil, nuts, and lemon juice and zest and pulse again until everything is finely chopped and well-combined.
- Drizzle in the olive oil last while the food processor is running. If you don’t have a spout on your processor, just put it in last.
- Taste and adjust, adding more of any of the ingredients you used along the way until you create something you like. Every day I make a pesto, it’s slightly different. My lemon may have been more tart or sweet than another day, my garlic might have been more pungent, or my basil might be sweeter depending on what season it’s growing in.
**Use unsalted nuts so you can adjust the salt level. Toast lightly and let cool before blending into the pesto.
***For a chunkier pesto, use a mortar and pestle. This way, you may need to use fewer ingredients depending on how large yours is.