Do you ever wonder what was going through the mind of the person who decided to make a sauce from fresh basil leaves? I guess I can see someone saying “you know? we keep tearing up these leaves and adding it to our pasta … and we always use garlic and Parmesan cheese … a good drizzle of olive oil never hurt”. But then … “Oh! and hey! let’s throw in some nuts!”
I still don’t get it. I do hope that one day I will be watching Food Network or looking through Cooking Light Magazine and that secret will be revealed to me. (Yes I did google it, but my first 10 attempts just kept telling me what goes into pesto, not why.)
I did learn that “pesto” is a shortened form of the Italian word “pestato” which means to crush or pound. It is derived from the Latin word “pestle” which leads us to a mortar and pestle which leads me to thoughts of guacamole! Huh. Two of my favorite green condiments.
Meanwhile … I am perfectly happy that someone else had that lightbulb moment: “PINE NUTS! That’s what this sauce needs!”
Although traditional pesto is made from those four basic ingredients (basil, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and pine nuts) plus a little salt and pepper, many variations have become popular. Parsley, cilantro, spinach, kale, arugula and many other “greens” have been substituted for or combined with the basil. The pine nuts have been replaced with walnuts, cashews, almonds, pepitas, and even pistachios. Some add jalapeno, asparagus or sun-dried tomatoes. Just type “pesto” in the search bar on Pinterest, and the possibilities will be revealed to you.
This pesto recipe is my favorite. It uses a mixture of spinach and basil for a milder flavor and adds in some lemon juice and zest. It makes about a cup and a half of pesto (12 oz).
Spinach & Basil Pesto
1 1/2 cups packed fresh spinach leaves
3/4 – 1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts, cooled
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon coarse ground pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1/2 cup olive oil
Place spinach, basil, pine nuts, cheese, garlic, salt, pepper, lemon juice and zest, and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a food processor. Pulse the blade several times to start crushing and combining the ingredients. Process the ingredients until finely chopped, scraping the sides of the bowl with a rubber scraper occasionally. Drizzle remaining olive oil into the mixture and process until smooth.
I know people who use pesto all the time and have absolutely no trouble using this much pesto before it starts to turn brown. Throwing away a half a jar of pesto (or anything else for that matter) really frustrates me. So this is probably my favorite trick. Freeze the pesto in manageable portions. I like portions of about two tablespoons. If I just want some to add to a sandwich, I take one out. If I’m making lasagna or a dinner pasta salad, I take 2 or 3 out. They defrost in about an hour and are always on hand.
Lay parchment paper out on a baking sheet (one that can go in the freezer). Scoop 2 tablespoons of pesto on the parchment (like making cookies) and place baking sheet in the freezer for 2-3 hours. When discs are frozen, wrap individually in plastic wrap and place the discs in a Ziploc baggie in the freezer.
Try it …
- instead of traditional pizza sauce (spread a thin layer of it on the crust)
- on chicken breasts or vegetables for grilling
- as a sauce for pasta or pasta salad (incorporate a little of the leftover pasta water to give it a creamier consistency)
- stirred into the cheese mixture in lasagna or cavatelli
- spread on the bread of a Panini or breakfast sandwich
- with fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella
My next experiment with pesto? Chilled Basil Tomato Red Pepper Soup
I’ll make sure to let you know how that one turns out. Or, if you beat me to it, let me know if it’s a keeper!
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