Basil's the traditional herb in pesto, but variations can be made with herbs like cilantro or mint.
Pasta Loves Pesto
Pesto is an aromatic herb paste, traditionally made from fresh basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil. It is most commonly used as a pasta sauce.
- Since pesto has a very concentrated flavor, make a pasta sauce by reserving a cupful of the pasta cooking water when you drain the pasta.
- Return the drained pasta to the hot pan, add a tablespoonful or so of pesto, and add the water a little bit at a time until the sauce reaches the desired consistency.
- The starch in the water will help to thicken the sauce and allow it to coat the penne or linguine (or whatever shape you choose).
- Serve the pasta as is, or top it with chopped fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and toasted pine nuts.
- You can also make it more filling by adding sautéed vegetables and leftover cooked chicken or ham.
Fresh basil is very delicate, and will turn brown if it gets very hot or if it's exposed to air for long periods of time. Many cooks use fresh spinach as well as basil in their pesto to help maintain its brilliant green color.
- When mixing pesto with pasta, potatoes, or risotto, stir it in at the last minute, just before serving.
- Store pesto in a jar or airtight container in the refrigerator for about a week, or in the freezer for about six months.
- Keep it looking fresh and green by covering the top with a thin layer of olive oil or with a sheet of plastic wrap directly on its surface; this will keep it from oxidizing and turning brown. (If your pesto darkens in color, it will still taste good. Only discard it if it has been stored improperly.)
One way to freeze pesto in manageable portion sizes is to freeze it in an ice cube tray, and transfer the cubes to a heavy duty plastic freezer bag. (Reserve an ice cube tray for this purpose, as it might discolor and flavor your plastic tray.) Thaw frozen pesto in the refrigerator or in the microwave on medium power just until room temperature.
Serving Suggestions for Pesto
Although pesto is easy to make at home and will taste fresher than the purchased kind, you can also find it at the grocery store in shelf-stable jars, in the refrigerator case, or in the freezer section.
- On pizza in place of or in addition to the red sauce
- Added to a cream sauce or Alfredo sauce
- Mixed with mayonnaise as a sandwich spread or burger topping
- Stirred into mashed potatoes
- Stirred into risotto
- Dolloped on soup
- Spread on crostini and topped with chopped tomatoes, smoked salmon, roasted red peppers or goat cheese
- Whisked into scrambled eggs or folded into omelets
In pasta salads, potato salads, or salad dressings
- Mixed with cream cheese and spread on a bagel