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Adding flavor to any dish is easy with pesto

Pesto sauce doesn’t always have to be made with fresh basil. Here, Lemon Artichoke Pesto over Linguine includes fresh cilantro, garlic, cayenne pepper and thawed, chopped artichoke hearts.


Pesto sauce doesn’t always have to be made with fresh basil. Here, Lemon Artichoke Pesto over Linguine includes fresh cilantro, garlic, cayenne pepper and thawed, chopped artichoke hearts.

This may be news to people who love pesto on their pasta: the savory sauce is not always made with basil. • For a long time, I thought pesto meant basil in Italian. Actually, pesto comes from the verb pestare, which means to pound or crush. And that's exactly what's done to the ingredients of pesto when herbs (or vegetables), nuts, Parmesan cheese and olive oil are mashed into a flavorful paste. I don't think pestare literally describes the modern-day food processor, but that's where I do my pounding and crushing.

My first taste of basil pesto was more than 35 years ago when a high school friend's very Italian mother made something their family called pasta con pesto. I came from a Chef Boyardee house, so I'd never eaten anything so exotic as the green concoction they pronounced PAH-stah cone PEH-stew. Hot pasta lit up aromatic basil, released pungent garlic and melted the Parmesan in stringy heaps. It was heavenly, in both smell and taste. As we moved on to college and for years after, Lisa's pasta con pesto was always in great demand. Unfortunately, she made it by eye and smell, as did her mother, so I never got a recipe.

Though I have fond memories of traditional pesto, I've branched out to other varieties and applications. I like pesto with pasta as an entree, but have also served a smaller portion alongside grilled steak, chicken and fish.

Hot pasta isn't the only foil for flavorful vegetarian sauces. They can be spread on crostini and pizza crusts, draped over grilled shrimp and chicken or folded into potato and pasta salads. Pesto ramps up sandwiches, especially a cheesy panini, and adds punch to veggie side dishes such as green beans or squash. Mix a spoonful with creamy salad dressing for added flavor.

So what, besides fresh basil, can flavor your pesto? Consider parsley, cilantro, arugula, spinach, asparagus, peas, edamame, artichokes, roasted red peppers or sun-dried tomatoes for the primary flavor (and color) component. Lemon or lime zest, fresh ginger root and red pepper flakes can add zing. Pistachios, walnuts, pecans, almonds or macadamia nuts might stand in for pine nuts. Even Parmesan cheese can be replaced by Romano or asiago. Garlic and olive oil are the constants.

Alternative pesto provides a good place to use leftover fresh herbs that you purchased for other dishes. Even a basil pesto welcomes a handful of flat-leaf parsley or arugula.

The trick to making pesto is to follow a recipe a few times, then start your experimentation. It's not difficult to make. The ingredients are blended in a food processor or blender and then olive oil is added in a slow stream to bring it all together.

My first few attempts at basil pesto were bitter, until I wised up and used only the leaves, discarding the stems. When you make any pesto, you may want less or more garlic. Nuts add flavor and body, but some recipes omit them. A nutless pesto may taste flat, but cracker crumbs or even sunflower seeds can substitute. The Lemon Artichoke Pesto recipe included with this story doesn't call for nuts and uses canola along with olive oil. A different spin with delicious results.

Pesto can be stored for a few weeks in the refrigerator, but make sure to lay plastic wrap next to the sauce to prevent discoloration from exposure to the air. It can be frozen indefinitely; thaw before using.

When mixing pesto for pasta, save some of the pasta water. If the final product is dry, add a bit of hot water and stir to loosen the pesto.

If using the sauce for a pasta salad, add a spoonful of ricotta cheese for creaminess. Additional olive oil might be necessary if the pesto sauce will be the base for pizza or a spread for sandwiches.

When it comes to pesto, the variations on the theme seem almost endless. Maybe versatile should be one of its meanings, too.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at or (727) 893-8586.


Lemon Artichoke Pesto

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

8 medium garlic cloves

4 tablespoons lemon juice

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 cup walnuts

1/2 cup canola oil

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt to taste

1 (8-ounce) package frozen artichokes, thawed and chopped

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Place the cilantro, garlic, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, walnuts, canola oil, olive oil, and salt into a food processor. Pulse until smooth, then pour into a large bowl. Gently stir in chopped artichokes and Parmesan cheese.

Makes enough sauce for
1 pound of pasta.



Walnut-Arugula Pesto

2 bunches arugula (about 6 cups packed)

1 ½ cups walnuts, toasted and cooled

¾ cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon salt

1 large clove garlic

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Remove stems from arugula and discard. Wash leaves and spin dry.

In a food processor, combine arugula, walnuts, Parmesan cheese, salt and garlic clove. Chop fine. With the motor running, add the oil in a stream.

Makes enough sauce for about 1 pound pasta.

Source: Adapted from Gourmet magazine.


Pistachio-Parsley Pesto

1 packed cup fresh parsley leaves

1/3 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

2 tablespoons roasted pistachio nuts

3 cloves garlic, peeled

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a blender, combine parsley, broth, pistachio nuts and garlic. Process until smooth, adding more broth, if necessary, to create a saucelike consistency. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

Makes enough for about 1/2 pound of pasta.

Source: Food Network.


Cilantro Pesto Pasta

1 clove garlic, peeled

2 inches fresh ginger root, chopped

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3 ounces, about ½ cup, macadamia nuts

Juice of 1 lime

1 cup cilantro leaves

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon coarse salt, eyeball it in palm of your hand

1 pound spaghetti, cooked to al dente, ½ cup pasta water reserved

Place first 8 ingredients in food processor or blender and blend until smooth, then add the pasta water. Toss with hot pasta, adjust seasonings, then serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Rachael Ray, Food Network


Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

1 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained

½ cup Parmesan cheese

½ cup fresh basil leaves

1 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

3 to 4 peeled garlic cloves

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Place the first five ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until emulsified.

Makes enough for at least 1 pound of pasta.

Source: Karen Pryslopski, St. Petersburg Times


Lemony Pea and Pistachio
Pesto Pasta Salad

1 pound penne or fusilli


¼ cup ricotta cheese

1¼ cups frozen peas, thawed, divided use

1/2 cup unsalted pistachios, toasted and chopped, divided use

¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

½ teaspoon pepper

Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt to boiling water and cook until just past al dente. Reserve 3/4 cup pasta water. Drain pasta in colander, rinse with cold water until cool, drain once more, and transfer to large bowl.

Puree ricotta and 2 tablespoons hot pasta water in food processor until smooth. Add 3/4 cup peas, 1/4 cup pistachios, Pecorino Romano, oil, garlic, mint, lemon zest, pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt and puree until smooth. Stir pesto into pasta until coated, adding reserved pasta water as need to adjust consistency. Fold in remaining peas and pistachios. Season with salt.

Serves 8 to 10.

Source: Cook's Country magazine

Adding flavor to any dish is easy with pesto 09/02/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 3:39pm]
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