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Cooking 101: How to make pesto

Patricia Conte has a background in marketing communications and works as an independent writer. In 2010, she was given the opportunity to combine her love of writing and food when she started as a contributing writer for the Food channel...

Give it up for the green sauce

When you're talking food and someone says, "sauce," what comes to mind? Typically a cream- or tomato-based liquid served with anything from pasta to pizza to potatoes? Well, it's time to give it up for pesto sauce. This green goodness easily tops just about any food you can imagine.

Pesto

Pesto is a versatile sauce that can be added to just about any dish that crosses your mind. When you decided to give it a go, be sure to use only fresh ingredients to complement its simplicity and bring out its flavor.

Since you don't need to cook pesto, it's perfect for a summer meal (but great all year long). A traditional Italian topping with origins in northern Italy, pesto gets its name from the way it was originally made -- pounded or crushed (using a mortar and pestle was the equivalent of using a food processor today).

Endless pesto-bilities

Making pesto is about as simple as can be and the best part is that the amount of ingredients you add is based on your tastes. Keep in mind that, although it's versatile, you don't want to load it on -- a little goes a long way.

The most common ingredients for pesto include basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese, but this is a dish you can definitely switch up. Swap the pine nuts for walnuts. Replace the Parmesan with Asiago. Brighten things up by adding red peppers or sun-dried tomatoes. In fact, you can even make pesto using arugula, parsley, asparagus or spinach instead of basil.

7 ways to use pesto

Pesto is most commonly used served over pasta -- hot and cold -- but its possibilities are endless! Use it for the following:

  1. as a topping for crunchy bread;
  2. served on a green pizza to replace red sauce;
  3. as a condiment with steak or fish;
  4. mixed in with eggs;
  5. drizzled over rice;
  6. whipped in with potatoes; or
  7. spread on a sandwich.

Traditional pesto recipe

Makes about 2 cups

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup basil leaves (or arugula, spinach, parsley or asparagus)
  •  2 cloves garlic (more or less to taste)
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
  • 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Juice of half a lemon, more to taste

Directions:

  1. Add the basil, garlic, toasted pine nuts, salt and pepper into a food processor and blend them until smooth.
  2. Add the Parmesan cheese, olive oil and lemon juice, mixing well. Adjust the ingredients to taste.

To use with pasta, simply prepare your pasta as normal. Add the pasta to a large serving bowl and toss the pesto sauce together with the hot pasta.

If you'd like, you can also add chicken, shrimp or additional vegetables to the dish, tossing together and serving warm.

Asparagus pesto recipe from The New York Times

Makes about 1-1/2 cups

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch sections
  •  1 clove garlic, or more to taste
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, or more to taste
  • 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • Freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste

Directions:

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add the asparagus and cook them until they're tender but not mushy, about 7 to 10 minutes. Drain well and reserve some of the cooking water. Allow the asparagus to cool.
  2. Add the asparagus, garlic, pine nuts, two tablespoons of the oil, Parmesan, a pinch of salt and a few tablespoons of the cooking water to a food processor. Blend until smooth.
  3. Gradually add the remaining oil, more of the cooking water, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Blend again until mixed well.
  4. Serve over pasta, fish or chicken.

Who knew green on your food could taste so good? Simple, fresh and tasty, pesto is the perfect pairing for so many meals.

Primo pesto recipes

Grilled salmon with pecan pesto
Portobello and pesto burgers
Arugula pesto cream sauce

More Cooking 101 topics

Basic salad greens
Basics tips for grilling fish
Cooking with wine

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