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 email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.