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The Story of Pesto

The Story of Pesto

Pesto genovese, better known as simply "pesto" to many, is a traditional sauce and condiment original to the city of Genoa in northern Italy. It is named from the Italian word pestare, which means to crush with a mortar and pestle. (Note that the last word of the previous sentence shares a similar etymology.) Although the Genoese people perfected the recipe with the addition of European pine nuts and the contribution of sweet basil introduced to the local landscape via India, the first pesto was actually enjoyed by ancient Romans. The original version, which was known as moretum, consisted of pounded cheese, garlic and herbs (including basil, which was first domesticated in Rome), brought together with a little vinegar instead of olive oil.

Since ingenuity is a desirable trait in terms of culinary skill, food enthusiasts from around the world have adapted the simple sauce to feature the local flavors of their respective environments. In Provence, France, the omission of pine nuts and the substitution of pecorino or another hard cheese yields pistou. Argentinian chimichurri combines parsley, oregano, garlic and olive oil plus white or red wine vinegar, again sans pine nuts or any type of cheese at all.

So, here’s what you should take away with you from this post: even though a basic recipe for the classic Italian pesto appears below, use it as a guideline and feel completely free to shake up the ingredients. For instance, if you don’t have any fresh basil on hand but have a clump of parsley leftover from another dish that needs a new purpose, use it to make pesto. Ditto for the heap of salad greens stuck in the produce drawer that are just a tad too wimpy for salad but not quite ready to be called compost. Similarly, although the pedestrian use of pesto with pasta is always palate pleasing, there are many more ways to use the stuff. Some suggestions also appear below.

Basic Pesto Recipe


1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts, toasted

4 cups loosely packed fresh basil or parsley leaves

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano

1 clove garlic (or tsp minced garlic)

Salt and freshly cracked pepper to season

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil


Spread nuts on a rimmed baking sheet and toast in a preheated 350'F oven until fragrant, about 5 or 6 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely.

Place the toasted nuts, basil (or other herb), Parmesan, garlic and salt and pepper in a food processor. Process until finely chopped. With the machine running, slowly pour in the olive oil in a steady stream through the feed tube. Process a minute or two more until the mixture is smooth.


  • Toss with pasta

  • Spread on crostini

  • Dab on top of a bowl of hot soup

  • Use as a spread for sandwiches

  • Use as a pizza topping

  • Combine with ricotta cheese as pasta sauce or stuffing

  • Spread over chicken or fish and bake


  • Use other herbs, such as parsley or oregano (or a combination of herbs)

  • Use leftover salad greens -- arugula, spinach or even spring mix greens

  • Skip the Parmesan and use cilantro with almonds

  • Add sun-dried tomato for bright red color and flavor

  • Toss in a pinch of red pepper flakes during the last step to wake up the taste buds

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