Pesto and spring: a great combination

Spring is finally here! Along with gardening, long walks, and dining al fresco, Spring makes me think “pesto sauce.” This sublime sauce — or, as explained below, sauces — can be made throughout the year, but spring and summer are particularly good times because fresh greens and herbs are plentiful in markets and in our gardens. Better yet, having a supply of pesto in the refrigerator or freezer during these months enables you to give flavor to dishes that are big on taste and short on prep time. That means more time to enjoy the outdoors.

The word pesto comes from the Italian “pestare,” which means to pound or crush. Historians believe the sauce originated in Liguria, which is a region of Italy that lies along the coast of the Ligurian Sea west to France. Basil, which is the main ingredient in traditional pesto, grows abundantly in Liguria, where the soil is rich and the climate, a perfect combination of cool mountain winds and salty sea breezes, creating ideal growing conditions. Traditional cooks make pesto sauce in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle to best render the oils contained in the basil leaves. The leaves are crushed in the mortar along with fresh garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and parmesan cheese to create the pesto.

Fortunately, you don’t have to travel to Liguria to find great basil and you don’t have to crush your basil in a mortar with a pestle. And you don’t have to use basil. You can make your pesto with a variety of herbs and vegetables and nuts and oils and different cheeses — or without any cheese or nuts at all. To give you an idea of the variations, we visited my son, Zack, who is studying in London this semester. He took me to an ordinary grocery store in London where, taking up three shelves in the sauce section were containers of the following pestos: Ligurian Black Pesto Sauce (made with black olives, walnuts, and basil), Ligurian White Pesto (made with basil, ricotta cheese, and pine nuts), Arugula Pesto, Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto, and Char-Grilled Aubergine (eggplant) pesto sauces. You can make each one of these pestos simply and quickly in your own kitchen.

And those are just the Italian versions. The French have their pistou, similar to pesto, a dollop of which is used to flavor soups and stews. The Sicilians add tomato to their pesto sauce. Moroccan cuisine features a red pepper paste or pesto that is used to marinate meats and doubles as a great dip for breads and vegetables. A pesto made from cilantro is used in Asian cuisine to marinate and stuff both fish and chicken. Indian cuisine uses mint as the base for its pesto-like chutney. Ajvar, made from roasted red peppers, eggplant and garlic, is a pesto-type sauce used as a dip or as a topping for grilled meats in Bulgarian cuisine. Greek chefs incorporate a parsley-lemon-garlic pesto to flavor chicken. I could go on and on. Just about any combination of crushed herbs, greens or vegetables and garlic and oil can work as a pesto sauce.

What is so special about pesto? You first need to think outside the pasta box. Topping, marinating, or cooking with pesto sauce can turn an ordinary meal into a gourmet feast. For example, pesto sauce makes a great sandwich spread mixed with a teaspoon of mayonnaise. Spread the sauce on some crusty bread and top with turkey or roast beef and a romaine leaf.

Or pesto pizza. You can add variety to your pizza by substituting pesto sauce for the classic tomato pizza sauce and topping it with gruyere or fontina cheese.

Try tossing slices of zucchini, eggplant, and peppers in olive oil and kosher salt, roasting them in the oven in a shallow pan at 425 degrees for 12-15 minutes or grilling them until slightly charred, and tossing them with a couple tablespoons of pesto sauce. Plain, steamed rice can be made special by mixing in a tablespoon of pesto sauce.

Add some white wine or balsamic vinegar to your pesto sauce and use it to marinate chicken for grilling, or as a great salad dressing. Toss boiled potatoes or poached chicken breasts with pesto. A plain grilled steak or fish fillet tastes great topped with a dollop of pesto. The possibilities are endless.

All pesto sauces, including the traditional basil pesto, can be made and kept refrigerated for 3-5 days without diminishing the quality or flavor. I make large quantities of basil pesto sauce and freeze it for use throughout the year. I freeze my sauce in cleaned 6 oz. marinated artichoke jars, just the right amount to use with a pound of pasta. The sauce can also be frozen in ice cube trays. Once frozen, the sauce cubes should be placed in a zip-lock freezer bag. To thaw pesto, place it in the refrigerator overnight or in a warm-water bath.

I am including a few of my favorite pesto sauce recipes to get you started. The next time guests drop by unexpectedly for dinner, pull out your pesto, boil a pound of pasta, and toss a salad. And, when you have just a little bit more time, use your pesto ingenuity and imagination to create a meal to remember.

Basil Pesto Sauce


2 cups packed basil, rinsed and patted dry

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Combine basil, oil, garlic, pine nuts and salt in a food processor or blender. Blend.

Transfer mixture to a bowl and stir in cheese. Refrigerate covered for up to a week, or frozen for three months.

Yield: 1 cup, enough for 1 pound of pasta to serve six people.

Spinach-walnut pesto


2 packed cups packed fresh spinach, stems removed, washed, and chopped

3/4 cup walnuts, toasted and cooled (chop nuts if making pesto by hand.)

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place fresh spinach in a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds, drain, rinse in cold water and drain again. Squeeze excess moisture out of spinach.

Place spinach, walnuts and garlic into a food processor container. Process spinach mixture until just combined. With machine running, add olive oil. Scrape pesto into a bowl and stir in cheese. Season mixture with salt and pepper to taste.

Refrigerate, covered tightly, for up to 3 days.

Yield: 1 1/2 cups.

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto


1 clove garlic, peeled

1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves

1/4 cup fresh parsley, tough stems removed

2 tablespoons toasted chopped walnuts

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp. freshly grated parmesan cheese

1 tsp. grated lemon zest

Salt to taste

Put all ingredients, except salt, into the bowl of a food processor. Blend. Transfer mixture to a bowl and stir in cheese and salt, to taste.

Refrigerate, covered tightly, for up to 3 days.

Yield: 1 cup.