We love to teach chefs and consumers about pestos, one of the most versatile sauce families in the pasta world. A good pesto is just as at home on a sandwich or pizza as it is on pasta, making great for cross-utilization. Here’s your pesto 101:
The word pesto comes from the Italian word pestare, “to pound”, as it was originally made by hand with a mortar and pestle. By not cooking the ingredients, the delicate aromatics are retained, and you get their full flavor effect.
The famous Pesto Genovese hails from Liguria, and features the basil, pine nuts and garlic that we all know and love. Another classic pesto going back hundreds of years comes from Sicily, the pesto trapanese, which has a base of fresh ricotta, tomatoes, basil and either almonds or pine nuts.
Really almost any combination of nuts, aromatic herbs or greens and EVOO can be a pesto, resulting in a limitless array of different versions. Chef Lorenzo loves the combination of pistachios, basil and parsley or mint. “The bright green color and full herb flavor is amazing,” he says. Nettles, parmigiano, salt & pepper and EVOO is another. He’s also done a take on Sicilian pesto with sautéed artichoke hearts, pistachios, ricotta and parsley.
Chef Yury points to pesto as a food waste “upcycler” – a place to use your carrot tops and skins, herb stems or other produce odds and ends. “They can look great on the plate, and really elevate what might have been headed for the compost bin,” says Yury.
Chef Tim likes working with leafy greens for pestos, in keeping with a “use what you’ve got” philosophy. His formula for an arugula and spinach pesto makes for easy swaps with what’s on hand and needs using – chard, watercress, kale, it’s all in play. “When you can go “small batch” and use a mortar and pestle, it’s worth it,” says Tim. “The texture is on another level.”
Editor’s Note: For at-home use, you’ll find Barilla Creamy Genovese and Rustic Basil sauces at your local grocer or e-tailer.
Here are some tips for creating your own pesto:
- Use any fresh herb, green, or vegetable: arugula, spinach, kale, marjoram… nettles are amazing (just be sure to blanch them).
- Use any nut you like: pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, even cashews work well.
- Use a good amount of EVOO; a minimum of 6TBS per pound of pasta you want to serve.
- If using a blender, start with a few ice cubes. They will keep the blades from “cooking” the aromatics, and add a bit of water to lubricate the sauce as ice melts. Add the oil at the end.
- Try using roasted or confit garlic instead of raw; it will keep better and impart a milder, fuller flavor.
- If you’re going dairy-free, nutritional yeast can bring some of that savory, cheesy flavor
- When adding pesto to your pasta, soften it first with a ladle of cooking water. This will help it cling to the pasta and keep the pesto from clumping. Simply toss the cooked pasta in a bowl with the pesto and serve.