A fool-proof method for delicious pesto (and how to easily customize it with over 50 ingredients)

Our handy pesto matrix is proof: The limit does not exist for this endlessly adaptable sauce

By Michael La Corte
February 23, 2021 6:30PM (UTC)
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Pesto Pasta Ingredients (Getty Images)

For many, a simple pasta dish is an easy, reliable weeknight option. However, said dish is almost always dressed with a relatively bare-bones marinara or possibly a simple garlic and oil sauce. Perhaps we're talking about a a quick carbonara or even a cacio e pepe. But the actual easiest pasta dish seems to somehow get "lost in the sauce"  pun obviously intended. 

What dish am I alluding to? Pasta with basil pesto, of course! What a marvelous sauce, right? It's colorful, healthful, bursting with vitamins and raw. Best of all, there's truly no cooking required whatsoever to make pesto. It's stellar when mixed with pasta, but have you ever had it as a sandwich spread? As a dip for crudites? Mixed with mayonnaise? Pesto cream sauces are on another level entirely  I can't recommend them enough. 

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A primer on pesto

The Washington Post states that "the first pesto recipe published in a U.S. magazine was in Sunset in 1946," and the sauce didn't "catch on" until the '70s. Suddenly, during the '80s, pesto experienced a huge popularity burst! But for the past 20 or so years, its enormous popularity seems to have waned.

While I'm unclear as to why pesto has somehow fallen a bit out of fashion since its initial boom in popularity, I appreciate the many virtues of the viridescent condiment. I hope this deep-dive makes you think, "Maybe I should make pesto tonight?" Or why not think of it as '80s night? Put on some A+ Spotify playlists, and enjoy all of the wonders that pesto has to offer.

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RELATED: 10 easy-to-make pasta dishes for satisfying weeknight dinners at home

Pesto, explained

Pesto  as we know it today  generally refers to pesto alla genovese. It hails from Genoa, the capital of Liguria, which is in northern Italy. According to this love letter to the region from Saveur, the earliest known pesto recipe dates back to Giovanni Battista Ratto's La Cuciniera Genovese, which was published in the mid-1800s. Originally made with a mortar and pestle, you can certainly make pesto with a food processor or even a blender now. But if you DO have a mortar and pestle, you really can't beat making the dish that way.

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It's all about the base

The standard, classic recipe is as follows: fresh basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pine nuts, garlic, salt, freshly cracked black pepper and a generally high-quality EVOO. Some minor adjustments include parsley instead of basil, pecorino instead of Parm or maybe even an alternate oil instead of olive. 

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However, there's really no need to limit the realm of pesto, or as we're referring to it today, the "pestro matrix."

A fool-proof method for delicious pesto

The method is rather straight-forward: You want to blend together the cheese, nuts and garlic. When they've reached a fine consistency, add in the greens. Once the greens and other ingredients have begun to blend together, you stream in the oil  slowly  letting it turn the gritty paste into a cohesive, rich mixture. That's it! 

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How to best enjoy pesto with pasta

If you're enjoying your new homemade pesto with pasta, be sure to save some starchy pasta water before draining. The water will help the pesto stick to the pasta and create a true "sauce."

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Pesto Pasta

Recipe: Classic Pesto 

  • 3 1/2  cups basil, other green or combination of basil AND another green
  • 1/2 - 3/4 cup oil
  • 3/4 cup grated cheese
  • 1/4 cup nuts
  • 1-2 garlic cloves
  • Kosher salt
  • Cracked black pepper 
  1. In blender, food processor, or with mortar and pestle, crush or blend cheese, nuts, garlic, salt and pepper together.
  2. Add basil and/or other greens, crush or blend, and then slowly stream oil until the mixture becomes smooth and near-homogenous 
  3. Season to taste.

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Adjustments for every diet

From a dietary restriction perspective, omit the nuts if you're eating nut-free and/or omit the cheese if you're vegan  that's really it. The greens, garlic and oil are permissible on essentially almost any diet, so feel free to incorporate those with reckless abandon. But definitely don't forget to scoop a bit of starchy pasta water before draining your noodles  the water will help the pesto stick to the pasta and create a true "sauce."

The myriad assortments of ingredients help keep the pesto matrix completely customizable, so feel free to feel free to rifle through your cabinets, scour your refrigerator and put together the best darn pesto imaginable. Have fun — the combinations are endless!

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A customizable Pesto Matrix 

The Green (in place of OR in addition to basil): parsley, arugula, radish greens, carrot greens, kale, chard, escarole, spinach, broccoli rabe, fennel fronds, cilantro, mint, dandelion greens

The Cheese (in place of OR in addition to Parm./pecorino): grana padano, romano, manchego, asiago, ricotta salata, piave, gruyère, fontina, bianco sardo, sartori sarvecchio, capra sarda

The Nuts (in place of OR in addition to pine nuts): walnuts, pistachios, pepitas, almonds, pecans, cashews, hazelnuts, brazil nuts, macadamias, chestnuts, sunflower seeds (toasted or untoasted)

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The Oil (in place of OR in addition to olive oil): avocado oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, canola oil, vegetable oil, light olive oil, walnut oil, flaxseed oil, grapeseed oil

Misc. (in place of OR in addition to garlic): lemon, red pepper flakes, dehydrated powders (like dried mushroom), sun-dried tomatoes, etc.

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    The limit does not exist

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    Also, don't limit pesto to just pasta sauce! It's an amazing sandwich condiment, it's terrific on crostini, it elevates any grilled protein and it's unbeatable on pizzas. Lastly, it's incredibly versatile  almost every ingredient can be mixed and matched. 

    NOTE: Some heavier, tougher greens should be blanched prior to blending with other ingredients. A combination of basil and another green is also always delicious, but try not to incorporate any more than two greens in one pesto. Otherwise, go wild! 

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    Bright and acidic with bursts of flavor from pistachios and parmesan, this pesto adds an appealing and sometimes hard-to-identify flavor to sandwiches, pastas or anything else that it's slathered on. 

    Recipe: Fennel Frond Pesto 

    Ingredients

    • 2 1/2 cups basil
    • 1 cup fennel fronds (just the frilly greens)
    • 1/2  - 3/4 cup EVOO
    • 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
    • 1/4 cup shelled pistachios
    • 1-2 garlic cloves
    • Kosher salt
    • Cracked black pepper 

    Instructions

    1. In blender, food processor or with mortar and pestle, crush or blend Parm, pistachio, garlic, salt and pepper together.
    2. Add basil, crush or blend, add fennel fronds, crush or blend, and then slowly stream oil until the mixture becomes smooth and near-homogenous.
    3. Season to taste.

    If you're going the noodles route, here three tips for achieving pasta greatness at home:


    Michael La Corte

    Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. He loves hard cheeses, extra-crispy chicken cutlets, chocolate-coated candied orange peels, any and all pasta dishes, croissants, peach juice, coffee and admittedly stans Mountain Dew — as damning as that may be. He is a burgeoning movie buff and has an irrational distaste for potato bread. He is especially passionate about music, social justice advocacy, his loved ones and his dog, Winston.

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