originally posted at ChefsLine 10 Aug 2006

The pesto we all know and love reportedly originated in the city of Genoa, in Liguria, a small region in northern Italy. But, the word pesto itself is derived from the same root as the word ‘pestle’, which is used to grind things up, and meaning anything that was smashed or ground up, usually in a mortar with a pestle. Sicilian pesto, for example, resembles what most of us know as marinara sauce more than the green basil-based sauce mixture we associate with the word pesto.


Therefore, we can actually take a bit of creative license when it comes to making pesto. But, that being said, when you say pesto, your guests will undoubtedly get a particular idea in mind, and you wouldn’t want to disappoint them. In Italy, the traditional pesto we think of is actually labeled ‘pesto alla genovese’, and any prospective pesto producers will be required to use only basil, garlic, salt, pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil, and Parmigiano Reggiano (yet another protected designation of origin label), with the option of using pecorino sardo (a goat cheese). Sometimes the rules get bent in Italy, however, when someone opts to save money and use walnuts or cashews, or a less expensive cheese. Here in the U.S. of course, pesto-making guidelines often get completely swept aside as cooks experiment and add this or that twist in order to personalize their pesto. And why shouldn’t we? The pesto process is so fun and many of the suggested ingredient combinations that follow are wonderful summer alternatives to almost any other kind of sauce or condiment!

Here’s the basic international recipe:

PESTO (makes 3 cups):

8 cups fresh basil leaves

1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil

2 oz. pine nuts

6 cloves garlic

1 1/2 tsp salt

5 oz. Parmesan cheese

1 1/2 oz. Romano cheese

Wash and drain the basil leaves. Put the basil, oil, nuts, garlic, and salt in a blender, food processor or mortar. Blend (or grind) to a paste, but not so much that it becomes smooth. It should have a slightly coarse texture. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the cheese. You can keep the pesto in the refrigerator for more than a week but two at the most, or you can freeze it for much longer, but you should not add the cheese before you freeze it - wait until you thaw the pesto to add the cheese. Some uses for pesto may due well without any cheese at all. Borrow a technique from the preparation of foi grois: drizzle the oil over the surface of the pesto before it goes into the freezer - this will help preserve its flavor and color. And remember, you can make sauces out of whatever pesto portions you have left over by adding stock (probably chicken stock, but ham would work great also), pasta-cooking water, tomato sauce more olive oil, or any combination thereof (note - the acid in tomato sauce will prevent the gelatinization, or thickening power, of starches).

Of course, if you tally up all the pestos or pesto-like sauces in the world, the variations would soon begin to outnumber the commonalities. Nations, provinces, families, companies, restaurants, and chefs have been putting their own spins on traditional Italian pesto alla genovese ever since pesto became an Italian tradition.

Among the more popular variations of pesto are:

-Genoese pesto (traditional Italian pesto, as noted above)

-Sicilian pesto (a.k.a salsa cruda, rustic chunky tomato sauce)

-Arugula pesto

-Spinach pesto

-Sun-dried tomato pesto

-Italian parsley pesto

Some less likely but perfectly yummy variations are:

-Red bell pepper pesto (peppers added to traditional pesto)

-Asparagus pesto (chopped al dente asparagus added to traditional pesto)

-Mushroom thyme pesto (mushrooms and thyme in place of the basil)

-Olive pesto tapenade (minced mixed varieties of olives give the pesto tang)

-Pistachio pesto (pistachios in place of the pine nuts)

-Sage chestnut pesto (easy on the sage)

-Sun-dried tomato caper pesto (great with chicken)

-Watercress dill pesto (great with fish)

Some exciting creative pestos for you to try:

-Peruvian pesto (well, okay, I have found several versions of these at various Peruvian restaurants, but the point here is that any cuisine in the world may make it’s own variation of pesto)

-New World pesto (mint, cilantro, basil, thyme, parsley)

-Garbanzo pesto (add the beans cooked al dente)

-Lemon thyme pesto (my fav, best with chicken)

-Cilantro pecan pesto (skip the basil and pine nuts)

-Butter pecan pesto (just substitute butter for the oil and pecans for the pine nuts)

-Pestotouille (like ratatouille, featuring roasted veggies mashed in with the traditional pesto ingredients)

-Cilantro pesto, w/ cashews, chiles, citrus zest and tamari (try it with salmon)

-Cream cheese pesto (also works with ricotta, chevre and mascarpone, makes the pesto milder and creamier)

-Russian pesto (as above, but with sour cream)

-Mint macadamia pesto (good with pork)

-Ancho chile tomato pesto (like Sicilian pesto, but hot as you like it)

-Rosemary olive walnut pesto (chicken or fish)

-Broccoli butternut pesto (great and different, and with a flavor that can hold up to red meat dishes)

-Watercress dill hickory pesto (on grilled fish or chicken)

And for the brave, crazy and/or kooky cooks out there:

-Swirly Italian flag pesto, with a pure sun-dried tomato pesto (no greens) combined with traditional Italian pesto and ricotta cheese, half-stirred so that they remain visibly separated streaks

-Plum pesto, w/ honey, mustard, garlic and balsamic

-Persimmon pesto with vanilla bean

-Lavender lemon preserve pesto

-Pomegranate pecan pesto

-Beet pepper walnut pesto

-Garfunkle pesto (yes, parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme)

-Chocolate pesto (not as dominating a flavor component as many people think, good with tomatoes