Quarantine Cuisine: Getting Creative with Pesto

Welcome back to another offering in our Quarantine Cuisine series, created to share ideas to liven up cooking during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many of us around the world are asked to stay at home, and our access to food may be limited. These meal ideas are shared with accessibility and customization in mind, allowing you to get creative with the ingredients – and quantities you have already in your home. 

If you have at least a passing familiarity with Italian cuisine, you’re familiar with pesto. Well, basil pesto, otherwise known as Genovese (Genoese) pesto.  You probably either love it or hate it.  If you hate it, my guess is you’ve had some crappy version made from non-fresh ingredients or fillers (maybe it came from a jar), or you just hate basil or garlic.  If you love it, its that zesty, summery combination of basil, garlic, and cheese that awakens any pasta or vegetable.

Perhaps you’ve also experienced a different type of pesto – perhaps a tomato pesto siciliana, an arugula pesto with fish, an herb, oil, and garlic French pistou, or a Mexican pesto with pepitas (pumpkin seeds).  Or maybe you’ve had zesty chimichurri with steak and thought it reminded you of another sauce.  That’s because some version of pesto has either existed or been adopted by other regional or national cuisine. Pesto in Italian (or pistou in French) means “to pound,” and the sauce traditionally was made by pulverizing the ingredients with a mortar and pestle.  Today, creating this delicious emulsion yourself is much simpler with a food processor or blender to do the physical labor for you.

To make your own pesto at home, you simply need fats, herbs/greens/vegetables, nuts and/or cheese, and garlic or another flavor element. If you don’t have enough of one item, you can just reduce the yield or substitute something comparable.  Who knows? You might just create a masterpiece. Pesto is not simply a pasta sauce. It is a fabulous companion to any protein or most vegetables – especially off the grill.

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Traditional Genovese pesto over gemelli with haricots verts.

We will start with the basic, tried and true Genovese pesto recipe. If you search online, you’ll find a number of varying ratios of ingredients, but the brilliance is that you can just taste your way to your ideal ratios.  Keep in mind that since pesto isn’t cooked, the quality of the ingredients – particularly olive oil, makes a significant difference. Pesto isn’t the time to use that massive bottle of cooking oil – go with the good stuff, if you have it! In its home region of Liguria (Genova/Genoa is its capital), pesto is typically served with linguine, green beans, and roast potatoes, but I prefer it with a shaped pasta, such as gemelli, cavatappi, or trofie.

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A food processor makes pesto a snap at home. I did not have enough fresh basil and had to supplement it with dried basil – the flavor was still great! #quarantinecuisine

Traditional Genovese Pesto

  • 2+ cups fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup pignoli (pine nuts)
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Equipment: Food processor/chopper, blender, or mortal and pestle

Directions:

  1. Toast pine nuts on a baking sheet in an oven or toaster oven for 5-7 minutes; pine nuts burn quickly, so keep a close eye on them.  They should be pale golden in color – anything darker will make them (and your pesto) bitter. Set aside to cool.
  2. In a food processor or blender, combine all ingredients, excepting the oil, and pulse to combine.  Slowly begin adding olive oil, in a steady stream if possible, to the other ingredients, while operating the food processor or blender on a medium/high setting (grind/puree).  The ingredients should form a paste, which should loosen as more oil is added.
  3. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container, coating the top of the pesto with a thin layer of additional olive oil.

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    Vernazza, a village part of the Cinque Terre, in pesto’s home region of Liguria in northernwestern Italy

If you don’t have access to those ingredients, you can substitute most of them or omit altogether (Ligurian pesto does not use the cheese, for example).  Substitute arugula (rocket) for the basil; replace pine nuts with walnuts or hazelnuts, or use cilantro or parsley without the cheese for an entirely different profile.  Use up ripe avocado with this delicious, nutritious and vegan pesto recipe I posted a few years ago.

Don’t have most of these ingredients, or looking for a different flavor profile?  Let’s create something new! A few days ago, I noticed a box of arugula that was wilting before its use-by date. Not great! My friend Erica suggested I make it into pesto with cashews. With only Trader Joe’s Chile-Lime Cashews in my pantry, I wondered if that combination was promising. I started tinkering, finally arriving with a “cheesy” vegan pesto with notes of curry.  The flavors were as bright as the coloring in the below photo, strangely creamy and sweet, with garlic to add some intensity. It was a win, and it is tasty paired with chicken or seafood – or even as a dip for my favorite plantain chips.

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Global Fusion Pesto (Vegan)

  • 2+ cups arugula (rocket) or other leafy green, such as kale
  • 1/2 cup roasted cashews
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast (optional)
  • 1/2 cup olive or avocado oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp. curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric
  • dash cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp. grated lime zest (optional) or 1 Tbsp. lime or lemon juice
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp. salt

Equipment: Food processor/chopper, blender, or mortal and pestle

Directions:

  1. Toast cashews (if raw or desired for flavor) for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown and aromatic.  Cool.
  2. In a food processor or other implement, combine the greens (if using kale or a larger leafed green, roughly chop first and remove any course stems) and cashews and chop until coarsely ground.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients, except for the oil and pulse to combine.  In a steady stream, add the oil while running the food processor (or crush in small amounts) on a medium or high “puree” setting until smooth and shiny.
  4. Add salt to taste and mix to incorporate.  If the paste is too thick, add more oil. When storing, cover with a thin layer of oil.

Looking for more inspiration?  Check out the Food Network’s 50 pesto recipes.

Happy pesto making!

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