Twenty years ago, I met a French Chef named Marie, who I convinced to live with me for two months and teach me how to cook. We cooked nonstop, yet she rarely gave me an exact recipe. This pesto is a perfect example of how she taught me to cook without relying on a recipe.
When Marie made pesto, she poured some pinenuts into a food processor, added two freshly peeled garlic cloves, and blended. Then she added two heaping handfuls of fresh basil leaves and blended again. Next, she poured in olive oil and blended again. She smiled, dipped a spoon into the pesto, tasted it, and said, “bon,” which means good in French. Then she grated parmesan cheese, scooped it up with her knife, added it to the mixer, and blended again. Another taste test, another “bon,” and we had pesto.
It was better than any pesto I had ever tasted. I got my pen and paper and asked Marie to give me the recipe. Her reply was, “Weren’t you watching? I just made it.” This was the moment I understood that the key to great cooking is to connect with food and feel your way through a recipe. Add, taste, and adjust.
I’ve been making pesto like this for over 20 years. And I still don’t know how many pine nuts to add. Or mint, parsley, lemon juice, or lemon zest—I make pesto with all these ingredients and more. Pesto simply means it is a sauce. You can make pesto sauce with just about anything, including tomatoes and carrot leaves. And the best part is you don’t need a recipe, just a guideline. Here is your guideline to getting you started.
Garlic - fresh cloves not pre-minced or pre-peeled
Parmesan cheese - from a block not pre-grated
Fresh ground pepper
Using a food processor or blender, blend nuts and garlic. Add herbs, olive oil, lemon, and salt, and blend. Add cheese blend again. Taste. Add more basil, lemon, or salt, as you like.
A mini food processor is an excellent kitchen tool because it is convenient and easy to clean up.
As we learned from Chef Marie, the quantities do not have to be exact. Add more basil, nuts, and/or parmesan as you like.
Read the notes below for more tips and a beautiful story about making pesto in Italy.
Pesto is the ultimate condiment. You can be sure it is loaded with nutrients instead of additives and preservatives found in commercially made condiments.
You can make pesto without cheese or nuts. Basil, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, sea salt, and fresh ground pepper alone is divine.
Ingredients and combinations are endless when it comes to making pesto.
Serving Suggestions for Pesto
Mix with pasta
Serve a dollop on top of ravioli
Spread on bruschetta
Serve as a side with tomato mozzarella salad
Serve as a veggie dip
Bake on top of whitefish
As a salad dressing
Baked on leftover chicken
Use as a sandwich spread
Pesto is simple, but there are so many ways to make it. It's interesting to explore different techniques and recipes. A few months ago, I watched a documentary on a plane about Italian cooking. An Italian woman made basil pesto for her family's Sunday dinner. She made it by hand with the largest mortar and pestle I've ever seen. It had to be 15 inches in diameter.
She turned the basil with care and ground the nuts and garlic with such tenderness it was ceremonious. Listening to her talk about consistency and the aromas of the basil and garlic made me want to rush out and buy a large mortar and pestle as soon as I landed. But I am sticking with my easy version until I have time to slowly hand-turn my pesto because my process is good enough for now. It's fast, and I make pesto often for my kids and their friends. Pesto is one of my go-to's to get the kids to eat something healthy before they have a bowl of pasta or a slice of pizza.
I served pesto and veggies for the appetizer before one Thanksgiving dinner. The kids devoured it and left only about a tablespoon. The next day my son's friend, Quran, asked for a turkey sandwich, and he asked, "Hey do you have any more of that pesto left for my turkey sandwich?" He was in luck. We spread the pesto on toasted bread, added the turkey, and melted Havarti cheese. It was delicious. The other kids took a bite, and Quran struggled to defend his pesto turkey sandwich. That's why I never throw away even the smallest amount of leftovers.
Thank you, Quran, for the idea. We have been making turkey pesto sandwiches all week. This is definitely on our Family Menu now.
When you add homemade pesto to your family menu, you will be thrilled to see your kids eat so many greens. You will know it is fresh and made with high-quality ingredients versus store-bought pesto, which may contain potato starch, milk, and manufactured citric acid, which is made from a mutant strain of the black mold Aspergillus niger. Now that you know that, doesn’t making fresh pesto sound wonderful?
Try making pesto, and let me know what you create.
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