Amazingly versatile pesto can spice up just about anything

Jim Hillibish

Sometimes we are so slow to adapt a cooking technique, like centuries. Pesto comes to mind.

The Romans in 50 B.C. were enjoying pesto spread on bread and cheese. It’s been an Italian staple since, flavoring pastas, soups, grilled meats and, especially, all manner of seafood. Pesto there is as basic as salt and pepper.

But not here. Pesto (chopped, fresh herbs preserved in olive oil) was not made here commercially until the 1990s. It’s still considered an oddball gourmet item at rather breathtaking prices, about a dollar an ounce.

Let bygones be gone. We can make pesto ourselves in 15 minutes. Then we like the Italians can enjoy fresh herb flavors all season.

Pesto encompasses a wide range of herbs, just about any that is green.

The most popular is basil. It can be made from mint, oregano, thyme, tarragon, marjoram, parsley and on and on. I have fun experimenting with combinations of herbs such as oregano and basil for a hearty, tomato-sauce pesto.

Pesto gets its name from the marble mortar and wooden pestle which once ground the herbs into a green sauce. We use a food processor to puree the ingredients.

The most basic pesto is chopped herbs and olive oil. The oil assumes the flavor of the herbs, preserving it. Pesto keeps for weeks in a refrigerator and up to a year in a freezer. Reach for it whenever you desire a blast of herb flavor.

Nuts, parmesan cheese and garlic often are added. Nuts traditionally are pine nuts, although walnuts and cashews work well, too. This results in complementary flavors that make pesto even more enjoyable.

The great contribution of pesto is its ability to make something fancy with the flick of a spoon. My fastest salad is pesto on tomato slices on lettuce. That’s all you need.

Linguine with olive oil and garlic is a popular, a nearly instant supper.

Add pesto to the pasta and you have a new, even more delicious dish.

I like pesto as a seafood grilling sauce. With a couple of minutes to go with fish fillets, shrimp or scallops, I brush on the pesto. It absorbs smoke.

Pesto in tomato and cream sauces negates the need to chop herbs and garlic.

Everything’s right there in the spoon.

I would use it sparingly until you can judge its strength. Pesto is concentrated flavor and can be quite powerful.

Flavored cheese spreads have run up in price alarmingly fast. Mix a tablespoon of pesto with a teaspoon of milk in 8 ounces of plain cream cheese. This is a fine spread for sandwiches and crackers.

One of the best places for pesto is soups. Heat releases the pesto flavor.

No more than a teaspoon of pesto in a quart of soup is all it takes.

I’ve eaten pesto on pizza and in meatballs, sausage and in chicken stuffing and on boiled potatoes and butter. It even survives the flavor-robbing tendency of the Crock Pot.

For the brightest flavor, apply it toward the end of the cooking. For a simmered, subtle flavor, add it first.

Honestly, I wonder how we got along for 2,000 years without this stuff.


2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed

1/2 cup parmesan or romano cheese

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup pine nuts, walnuts or cashews

3 garlic cloves, minced, more if you like it

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Add ingredients to a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped.

Note: May substitute other green herbs for the basil.

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