LIVE

Buh-bye, basil. 

By Stacey Ballis
March 17, 2021
Advertisement

If you lived through the 1990s and eating solid food, then pesto was probably a major part of your diet. This traditional Italian green sauce made of basil, pine nuts, Parmesan, garlic, and olive oil ground in a mortar and pestle or pureed in a blender or food processor was everywhere. The fame was deserved: Pesto is a super versatile condiment. It can be used as everything from a pasta sauce to a topper for meats, a salad dressing, a dip, or even a sandwich spread.

But pesto, as with so many trend foods, also became a bit ubiquitous, and many of us got a bit overloaded on the stuff. So, if you hear the word pesto and cringe, I have good news. Think of pesto as a concept, as a roadmap, instead of a recipe, and a whole world opens up.

Pesto is, at its core, an uncooked sauce made of a vegetable or herb, a nut, a cheese, oil, and seasoning. Which means that you can re-imagine it as a choose-your-own-adventure recipe. Mix and match based on what ingredients you have on hand, or flavors you love. Here's how to do it.

Start with a universal pesto "recipe"

Again, this is about types of ingredients rather than the specific ones you're used to. Here's the simple, easy-to-follow ratio:

8 parts vegetable or herb (2 cups)

2 parts oil (½ cup)

2 parts cheese (½ cup)

1 part nuts (¼ cup)

Seasoning and flavor boosters to taste

Once you know this, the world is your pesto oyster. Think about the kinds of combinations that are possible, whether the base is raw herbs or cooked vegetables:

  • Parsley pesto with aged manchego, almonds, and almond oil
  • Scallion pesto with ricotta salata, pistachios, and olive oil
  • Broccoli pesto with pecorino, pecans, and avocado oil

You can add boosters like citrus zest or juice, a splash of vinegar, capers, chili pepper, or pepper flakes. Make a fruitier version with roasted red peppers or sun-dried tomatoes. You can use nut butter instead of whole nuts or add avocado for a creamier texture. You can use a mix of herbs for more of a salsa verde feel.

Pesto
Credit: Getty / Louno_M

5 tips for DIY pesto success

Now it's time to play! Use these 5 tips, below, to help you head toward pesto perfection:

1. Always toast any nuts you are using in pesto for best flavor. You can either do this in the oven or in a dry skillet, just watch carefully to ensure they don't burn.

2. Use harder, grating cheeses; soft cheeses will make your pesto gummy. Look for dried cheese like Parmesan, pecorino, Romano, dried Jack, Asiago, five-year Gouda, and others.

3. When using olive oil in pesto, be careful not to overmix or blend, which can make it bitter. You can also use half neutral oil and half olive to help keep the flavor gentler.

4. Be careful with nut oils. Almond oil, walnut oil, and other specialty oils are delicious in pesto, but they also go rancid in your pantry much quicker than other cooking oils, so be sure to store in a cool, dark place, preferably in opaque containers, and use within 3-6 months of opening.

5. Experiment with texture based on how you want to use the pesto. Go for a smoother, more pureed pesto when you want it to coat pasta or for use as a salad dressing, think chunkier and more rustic when using as a dip, sandwich spread, or sauce for meats or vegetables. I make it with a blender or immersion blender when I want it super smooth and creamy, by pulsing with my food processor for coarse, and a mortar and pestle or hand chopper for super coarse.