This is the time of year when basil, as well as parley and cilantro, are thriving and gardeners are scratching their heads trying to figure out new ways to make good use of the fragrant herbs.
Thanks to some help from a variety of food writers, you'll find lots of help and ideas here for making fragrant, practical and delicious pesto.
Pesto doesn't have to be made exclusively with basil. The word comes from the Italian term that means pounded, so pesto can refer to any blend of raw herbs or greens pounded in a mortar. The old-school method of making pesto is taking a pestle and blending together whole basil leaves, a quality Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and salt. Today, most cooks use a food processor.
Classic basil pesto is added to hot pasta, with a little pasta water, but you can top chicken and pizza with it. Or, add it to red sauce and make lasagna. Stir it into meatloaf mix, or add it to homemade oil and vinegar dressing. It's outstanding as a sandwich spread with Italian salami.
It also freezes well, so basil can be harvested, turned into pesto, then frozen to be used until next season. (See freezing directions on this page.)
Ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes, parsley, cilantro and even corn also create pestos that are delightful and unusual additions to your recipe file.
Thanks for recipes and advice from Jackie Burrell of the San Jose Mercury News, Amanda Gold of The San Francisco Chronicle, Bill Daley of the Chicago Tribune, Alison Ladman of the Associated Press and Linda Gassenheimer of the Miami Herald.
The basic recipe combines 2 cups fresh minced herbs or greens, 1/4 to 1/3 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup nuts or seeds, and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese. Like all great recipes, the freshest and best ingredients are necessary.
Pine nuts are the most common nuts to use in pesto. They are seeds from the pine cone, and the variety most familiar to Americans is the delicate, sweet, almost buttery Mediterranean pine nut, also called pignoli. Cream colored and a mere half-inch long, the torpedo-shaped pignoli are often toasted before being added to pesto. Toasting pine nuts maximizes their nutty flavor, but they burn easily, so shake the pan often to avoid scorching.
Many recipes call for adding acids such as lemon juice and vinegar, which will enhance the taste but turn the bright-green basil an olive drab.
How to store pesto
When you make a batch of pesto, you'll want to store it properly. Don't just seal it with plastic wrap or a lid. Place it in a storage container and press plastic wrap down onto the surface of the pesto, and smooth out any air bubbles. Then seal the container with a lid or plastic wrap. The wrap on the pesto's surface will help keep it from oxidizing and turning brown.
You can freeze pesto in small, serving-size containers following the above procedure to ensure the pesto doesn't turn brown. It will last six months to a year in the freezer.
This is a traditional pesto made by cooks in Genoa, Italy.
4 cups basil loosely packed
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh garlic
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/3 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
1/3 cup finely grated pecorino cheese
1. Wash the basil in cold water. Gently pinch leaves from stems. Soak the leaves in a bowl of cold water for 1 hour.
2. Put the pine nuts, olive oil and garlic in a blender. Pulse to make a coarse paste. Add basil leaves, 1 cup at a time, shaking off some, but not all of the water (a little water helps the ingredients emulsify).
Pulse a few times after each addition. When all the basil has been pureed, add salt and blend on high until the pesto is smooth.
3. Add the cheeses and pulse to blend. (Take care not to overblend at this stage or the sauce will heat up and separate like a broken sauce.) Pour the pesto into a broad, medium-size mixing bowl. If it's more than 20 minutes before serving, cover pesto with a thin film of mild olive oil to slow oxidation. Serves 4.
Luca Minna and Laura Garrone, "Old World New, Family Meals From the Heart of Genoa" (M3 Media Group, $39.95)
CHICKEN WITH PESTO, TOMATOES AND WALNUTS
3 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves*
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup basil pesto, jarred or homemade
1 to 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground pepper
2 pints cherry tomatoes, in assorted colors, halved
1/2 to 1 cup walnut pieces, toasted
Arugula leaves or other salad greens
1. Place the chicken in a large saucepan; add water to cover. Add salt. Heat to a simmer; cover, cook until just done, 12 minutes. Do not allow to boil. Cool to room temperature. Thinly slice crosswise.
2. Meanwhile, stir the pesto, mayonnaise, lemon juice, vinegar and pepper to taste together in a small bowl to form a dressing. Combine with the chicken in a large bowl. Stir in the tomatoes and walnuts. Serve on a bed of arugula leaves.
Servings: 4 Per serving: 333 calories, 21 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 61 mg cholesterol, 12 g carbohydrates, 27 g protein, 212 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
*A store-bought rotisserie chicken can be subbed.
To make this a vegetarian dish, omit the bacon and use olive oil instead. You can also make the sauce with more traditional pine nuts, but toasted walnuts lend a nice nutty flavor and bitterness to the otherwise sweet sauce.
Fettuccine With Sweet Corn 'Pesto'
10 ounces fettuccine
Kosher salt, to taste
3 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 cups fresh corn kernels (from about 4 ears)
Ground black pepper, to taste
1/3 cup toasted walnuts
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
Torn basil leaves, for garnish
Cook the fettuccine in a large pot of well-salted boiling water according to package directions, until al dente. Drain, saving 1/2 cup of the pasta water.
While the pasta is cooking, make the pesto. Place the bacon in a large frying pan set over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until dark brown and crisp. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a paper towel to drain, leaving the bacon fat in the pan.
Add the garlic and corn, and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes, until the corn is slightly softened. Season to taste with salt and pepper; set aside to cool slightly.
Using a blender or food processor, puree the corn mixture with the walnuts, Parmesan cheese, lemon juice and olive oil until well-blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper, adding more lemon juice if desired.
Mix the fettuccine with the corn mixture, thinning with pasta cooking water if needed so that the sauce coats the noodles well. Toss in the reserved bacon pieces, and garnish with plenty of torn basil and extra Parmesan cheese, if desired.
Serves 4, each with 699 calories, 22 grams protein, 76 grams carbohydrates, 35 grams fat, 17 mg cholesterol, 436 mg sodium, 8 grams fiber.
Amanda Gold, The San Francisco Chronicle
The secret to this sauce is to squeeze the juice and seeds out of the tomatoes. Just cut them in half and squeeze.
If your fresh tomatoes aren't the best, use 1 cup drained best quality whole canned tomatoes. Be sure to squeeze out all of the juice.
RED PESTO PASTA
1/4 pound dried spaghetti or any other dried pasta
1/2 pound fresh tomatoes, about 1 cup tomato flesh
1 teaspoon minced garlic or 2 crushed garlic cloves
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
Cook pasta according to package instructions. While water for pasta is coming to the boil, wash tomatoes, cut in half and squeeze out seeds and juice into a salad bowl. Set bowl aside.
Add tomato flesh to the bowl of a food processor.
Add garlic, oil, tomato paste and basil. Process until a sauce consistency is reached. Remove to a large bowl and add the pine nuts, cayenne pepper and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.
Drain spaghetti and add to the bowl. Toss well. Sprinkle Pecorino cheese on top.
Makes 2 servings, each with 315 calories, 8 grams fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 12 grams protein, 49 grams carbohydrates, 3.5 grams fiber, 79 mg sodium.
Linda Gassenheimer, Miami Herald
SUN-DRIED TOMATO PESTO
4 ounces sun-dried tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped pine nuts
3 tablespoons chopped onion
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/3 cup crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt to taste
Place sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl and cover with warm water for 5 minutes, or until tender.
In a food processor or blender, combine sun-dried tomatoes, basil, parsley, garlic, pine nuts and onion; process until well blended.
Add vinegar, tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, and process.
Stir in olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Season with salt to taste. Serve on toasted baguette slices.
TOASTED NUT AND PARSLEY PESTO
3 cloves medium-large garlic, unpeeled
1 cup pecans, walnuts, whole blanched almonds, skinned hazelnuts, unsalted pistachios, or pine nuts, or any combination
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ounce grated Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup)
Table salt and ground black pepper
Toast garlic in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until softened and spotty brown, about 8 minutes; when cool, remove and discard skins.
Toast nuts in a medium, dry skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden and fragrant, 4 to 5 minutes. Cool.
In a food processor, process garlic, nuts, parsley and oil until smooth, stopping as necessary to scrape down sides of work bowl. Transfer mixture to small bowl and stir in Parmesan; season to taste with salt and pepper.
Toasting the unpeeled garlic in a skillet reduces its harshness and gives it a mellow flavor that works well in pesto. The pesto can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for as long as 3 days.
3 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 cups fresh cilantro, lightly packed
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place garlic and cilantro in food processor fitted with metal blade. With the processor running, slowly add oils, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Process until smooth.
LIGHTER PASTA WITH CREAMY BASIL PESTO
1 (14-ounce) package rotini
1/4 cup pine nuts
3 medium garlic cloves
2 cups fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons fresh parsley
1/4 cup chicken broth
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup part skim ricotta cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cook pasta according to directions; drain.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the pine nuts and garlic cloves on a baking sheet and place it in the oven for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the garlic is lightly browned and the pine nuts are lightly toasted.
Put the toasted pine nuts and garlic in a food processor with the basil, parsley, chicken broth, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, part skim ricotta and salt and process until smooth.
Toss cooked pasta with the sauce.
Serves 5, each with 449 calories, 310 mg sodium, 59 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams protein, 6 grams fiber, 10 mg cholesterol, 18 grams fat.
Adapted from "The New Best Recipe" cookbook
Here's a preparation tip: The cooked lasagna noodles will tear easily. It won't matter in the finished dish if they're torn, but if you think that it is going to bother you, cook a few extra noodles. Remember, they're cheap.
PESTO LASAGNA ROLLS
12 lasagna noodles
1 jar (26 ounces) pasta sauce or 3 cups homemade
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 container (15 ounces) ricotta cheese
1 package (10 ounces) frozen chopped spinach, thawed, squeezed dry
1 jar (3 1/2 ounces) prepared pesto
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
1. Cook lasagna noodles according to package directions; drain.
2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread 2 cups of the tomato sauce in bottom of a greased 13-by-9-inch pan. Combine garlic, ricotta, spinach, pesto, egg, Parmesan, salt and pepper to taste in a bowl.
3. Place a lasagna noodle on a clean kitchen towel; spread 1/4 cup of the ricotta mixture on the noodle. Roll noodle up; place seam-side down in pan. Repeat with remaining noodles.
4. Pour remaining tomato sauce over noodles; sprinkle with mozzarella. Cover with foil; bake 20 minutes. Uncover; cook until cheese is golden brown, 10-15 minutes.
Yield: 6 servings, each with 519 calories, 22 grams fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 54 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams protein, 1,241 mg sodium, 4 grams fiber.
For a crisp pizza bottom, place the foil-lined baking tray under the broiler to heat while you prepare the ingredients.
SAUSAGE PESTO PIZZA
6 ounces low-fat turkey or any other favorite sausage
2 tablespoons prepared pesto sauce
1/2 cup low-sodium tomato sauce
2 small pizza bases (about 6 inches each)
1/2 cup sliced baby bello mushrooms
3 tablespoons part-skim mozzarella cheese
Heat broiler. Line a baking tray with foil and place under broiler while it heats. Slice sausages and saute in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes.
Mix pesto and tomato sauces and spoon over pizza bases.
Add sausage and mushroom slices. Sprinkle mozzarella on top. Broil 3 minutes.
Makes 2 servings, each with 667 calories, 26 grams fat, 58 mg cholesterol, 33 grams protein, 102 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams fiber, 720 mg sodium.
Linda Gassenheimer, Miami Herald
ARTICHOKE AND PESTO PIZZA
1 partially baked pizza crust (9 inches) or dough round
1/4 cup each: pesto, toasted pine nuts*
1 jar (6 ounces) marinated artichoke hearts, well drained
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Spread pesto thinly over prepared pizza crust. Distribute the drained artichoke hearts evenly over the pie; sprinkle with the pine nuts. Cover with grated mozzarella cheese.
2. Bake until the crust's bottom is golden and crisp and the cheese has melted, about 7-10 minutes. Slice into wedges; serve hot.
Yield: 2 servings, each with 563 calories, 39 grams fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 32 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams protein, 742 mg sodium, 7 grams fiber.
*To toast pine nuts, place in a small, heavy skillet over medium heat; cook, stirring often, until the nuts are browned, about 5 minutes.
Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune
This is one of those rare sandwiches that improves with time. And as an added bonus, it also happens to be an excellent way to feed a crowd at a picnic.
For our recipe, we used a loaf of oblong Italian bread, but pretty much any shape and variety will work so long as the bread isn't crumbly. And while we used pesto as our moisture barrier, mayonnaise or a cheese spread would work fine, too. And obviously the chicken and salami we call for could be left out or replaced with cheeses or vegetables for a vegetarian version.
The only caution is to pat dry any ingredients that were packed in water, such as roasted red peppers, sliced jalapenos or even fresh mozzarella.
OVERNIGHT PRESSED PICNIC SANDWICH
1 loaf Italian bread, such as ciabatta
3/4 cup pesto
2 cups coarsely shredded meat from a rotisserie chicken
3/4 cup jarred sweet-hot peppers, such as Peppadew or banana, sliced
4 ounces sliced provolone cheese
4 ounces sliced salami
1 small yellow or orange bell pepper, cored and thinly sliced
1 small green bell pepper, cored and thinly sliced
1/2 cup sliced Kalamata olives
Slice the loaf of bread in half horizontally. Use your fingers to carefully pull or scrape out the inside of each half of the loaf, leaving about 1/2 inch of bread. Spread half of the pesto over the cut side of each half.
Top the bottom half of the loaf of bread with the chicken, jarred peppers, provolone and the salami, in that order. Top that with the bell peppers, then the olives.
Top with the upper half of the loaf. Wrap the loaf tightly first in plastic wrap, then in foil. Place the wrapped loaf on a baking sheet, then top with a second baking sheet. Place the whole arrangement in the refrigerator, then top with something very heavy, such as several bricks, a few large cans of tomatoes, or a cast iron skillet.
Let sit in the refrigerator overnight. When ready to serve, unwrap and slice.
Servings: 6, each with 510 calories, 30 grams fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 26 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 1 gram sugar, 33 grams protein, 1,430 mg sodium.