What do think of when you think of pesto? Probably a beautifully thick, green, intensely flavored mixture of basil, garlic, Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, olive oil, salt, and pine nuts. For me, pesto is both a magical foodie ingredient and a fabulous way to preserve herbs and other fine greens. I hope that this post will open your eyes and imagination to ways to incorporate pesto into your healthy meal planning.
WHAT IS PESTO?
The Italian word “pesto” means pounded. In centuries past – before food processors and blenders – many foods were reduced to very small particles by pounding using a mortar and pestle (I have a marble set that I still love to use for crushing spices). The locals in the northern Italian seaside city of Genoa would pound fresh basil leaves into tiny pieces to retain their intense green color and to release the aromatic and flavorful natural oils. When you have a few minutes, read last week’s post about how very good basil is for you – they were definitely on to something! It was the Genovese who made this heavenly paste popular.
These days, you can buy good pesto – usually pesto alla Genovese – in many grocery stores and online. But the actual taste of any brand, just like the taste of any family recipe, can vary widely. Americans tend to add pepper or cream or omit the nuts, for example. You can substitute vegetable stock for part of the olive oil, but the resulting consistency would be different. Try it with all olive oil first if you can. My feeling is that pesto is meant to be made at home with YOUR favorite ingredients. There are no rules about which greens, cheeses, oils, salts, and nuts you can add or leave out. With that freedom in mind, let’s get started!
IS PESTO HEALTHY?
Actually, pesto can be as healthy as you’d like to make it. If you stick with fresh whole foods that are good for your blood type, pesto can be a home run staple with lots of uses. My husband and I don’t like pine nuts and they are an avoid for my B blood type. He doesn’t like the overwhelming taste of so much basil in the Genovese version. That doesn’t mean we can’t substitute other greens and nuts. I don’t add cream in part because that’s an avoid for many people and not necessary for excellent flavor, though my first experience with pesto was a version with cream, and it was spectacular. Olive oil is good for all blood types, as is Himalayan salt. We all need lots of fresh, raw greens every day. You can substitute vegan cheeses, nutritional yeast, or dairy cheeses that may be at least neutral for your blood type.
Mostly, I’d say that pesto is healthy because it’s made from fresh, raw ingredients (the nuts can be toasted, but that’s a personal preference) and it can turn so many healthy but bland simple foods into “treats”. More on that later.
HOW IS PESTO MADE?
I’ll tell you how I make it. The recipe and instructions are simple, very forgiving, and open to limitless variations. This recipe is for 4 servings. I am usually dealing with yarden bounty and am, therefore, prepared to make many times this single recipe at one time. But this is the perfect way to experiment with new ingredients or for a special occasion with guests whose preferences you want to honor.
- 1/2 cup fresh herb leaves (all one type or mixed, like half sage and half parsley, for example).
- 1 clove fresh garlic (hahahaha – if you know me, you know I use my home grown Musica cloves that are quite large)
- 1 oz. of cheese (grated if sharp, crumbled if feta, cut up in cubes if softer)
- 1 oz. of nuts
- ¼ cup of olive oil (the better the grade, the more exquisite it will taste, in my opinion; be sure that you enjoy the taste of your olive oil on its own). I recommend cold pressed extra virgin olive oil.
- Himalayan salt to taste (most cheeses are salty, so please wait until everything else is mixed to your satisfaction before adding the salt and doing a quick final blend)
Combine all of the dry ingredients except the salt plus half of the olive oil in a food processor and process until a smooth paste is achieved. As you are processing, add the rest of the olive oil (more or less) until you achieve the consistency that you’d like. When you have the balance just right, decide whether to add salt (and pepper, if you are a fan).
There is nothing easier to prepare that tastes this good!
WHAT ARE SOME GREAT SWAPS?
Garlic scapes (for this, I add a little lemon juice and leave out the garlic clove)
Mediterranean medley (rosemary, thyme, summer savory, oregano, and parsley)
Cheeses (pair strong cheeses with strong tasting herbs and mild with mild):
Feta or Chevre (goat dairy)
Pecorino (sheep dairy)
Whatever you love…
Nuts (same pairing recommendation):
HOW CAN PESTO BE USED?
Think of pesto as edible fairy dust and add it to anything bland or savory that you enjoy eating. It can be used alone or mixed with other “fats” like mayonnaise as a spread on bread, crackers, rice cakes, and wraps. Add a dollop to soups and stews or dips. Use alone or added to a tomato or other sauce on pasta or cooked grains. Mix with more olive oil and vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice and use as a dressing on cold or warm vegetables. Use instead of another pan coating when sautéing meat, fish, or vegetables. When in doubt, try it.
CAN PESTO BE STORED?
Yes, of course! If you plan to use it quickly, save it in a glass container and cover it with a thin layer of olive oil. Cover with a piece of plastic wrap pressed onto the oil layer. This will preserve the fresh color of the greens when stored in the refrigerator. Pesto stored this way can last several days.
I usually make a large amount of pesto and portion it out into small 2-ounce jelly jars with 2-part lids. I leave space the depth of the neck of the jar, since the pesto can expand when frozen. I seal the lids tightly, label the ingredients, and store in the deep freeze. I don’t even put the oil layer on top. I recently found and used up a jar of fennel leaf pesto labeled 2015, and it was still excellent in texture and taste.
ARE YOU READY TO MAKE PESTO?
One of my favorite little recipe books is “Very Pesto” by Dorothy Rankin. It has recipes for many kinds of pestos as well as entire dishes that incorporate those pestos. As the Amazon blurb says, “The ingredients may be few, but the result is bountiful. Learn how to make an array of pestos using such diverse herbs as cilantro, rosemary, mint, and lemon thyme. Then enjoy them year-round with more than 30 recipes like Fresh Pea and Mint Pesto Pasta, Red Pesto Ceviche, Tabbouleh with Basil Mint Pesto, and Pesto Frittata.” The book is available in Kindle format or in a beautiful small cookbook format with a substantial paper cover. You can certainly search the internet and many fabulous cooking websites for recipes, but I would highly recommend this as a starter book (or gift) for novice pesto creators. This is not compensated advertising. I just love this book.
Pesto is pretty, delicious, healthy, and easy to make, use, and preserve. May your mealtimes be blessed.
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