“Pesto may have become more popular than is good for it,” wrote Marcella Hazan in The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. This Italian nut-cheese-and-herb sauce was created with pasta in mind—but, if you ask us, is just as good for swirling into hummus, folding into grain salads, and dolloping onto pizzas.
Pesto gets its body from nuts (while pine nuts are traditional, any variety works), savoriness from garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino, greenness from greenery (while basil is classic, other tender herbs like parsley and cilantro are pesto-friendly too), and buttery spiciness from olive oil. This is the time to break out a really tasty one—I used Wonder Valley’s , but use whichever extra-verdant, fruity oil you’ve got.
How you manipulate the ratio between these five ingredients is up to you, the season, and the dish at hand. My summer tomato salads are slicked with basil-heavy, cheese-light pestos. Holiday hummus and crudites welcome the toastiness of well-darkened walnuts and the substitution of wintry kale, as springy basil feels out of place. Take this classic pesto recipe below and run with it—stretch and push it, make it your own.
One note about the toasting method: Toasting nuts, especially small, fatty ones, in oil leads to evener browning, compared to dry-toasting. It happens suddenly though, slow to start, then all at once—this is one of those times where you actually must stop and stare and not do anything else for a few minutes. Don’t try to grate the clove of garlic or unwrap the cheese. Just focus on the task at hand, and be okay with it. Be one with the nuts.
The recipe below comes together in a food processor, because I have neither patience, nor a mortar and pestle large enough. But it’s certainly doable: First, pound the garlic and salt to a paste. Then pound in the basil leaves, a small handful at a time. Next, the toasted nuts; and finally, slowly, the cheese. Pound in a third of the oil, until the consistency is fairly smooth, then top off with the remaining oil. —Coral Lee
about 3/4 cup
raw pine nuts
extra-virgin olive oil, divided
finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 1/2 ounce)
garlic clove, grated
loosely packed cups basil leaves (from a 2-ounce bunch)
Set a small strainer over a small bowl. Combine the pine nuts and 4 tablespoons of oil in a small pan set over medium-low heat. Swirling occasionally, toast the pine nuts until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the pan’s contents into the strainer. Let nuts cool completely.
Once the nuts are cool, combine them and their oil, the cheese, garlic, salt, and remaining olive oil in a food processor. Pulse until coarsely chopped, scraping down as needed. Add the basil leaves and pulse just until the pesto becomes smooth, again scraping down if needed. Use immediately, store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 weeks (though, the sooner you use it, the better-tasting it will be), or the freezer for up to 3 months.
Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga.
When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.