Most food media people wait until summer to write about pesto, because summer is basil season. I don’t feel like doing that, and not because you can technically get basil year-round in the supermarket (even though it’s almost uniformly terrible in colder months). No, it’s because basil is merely one of the many green things that we can (and should) turn into pesto (or something that resembles it), and by waiting until summer to think about it we’re shortchanging our spring.
I think of pesto, and really the larger category of green sauces into which it falls, in much the same way that I think of homemade salad dressing: I want the ingredients on hand all the time, so I’m never more than 10 minutes away from a fresh batch. And once I have that, I’ll put it on almost anything. There isn’t a pasta or grain that couldn’t benefit from a toss with some green sauce; same goes for beans, simply cooked vegetables, seafood, poultry, meat, or pretty much any ingredient that’s been in contact with a grill. Spring is when fresh, bright dishes reemerge in our weekly repertoires, and there’s no better way to celebrate and jumpstart that than with green sauce.
The recipes here, basil pesto (requisite), parsley pesto, and five different spin-offs (like Chimichurri and Green Olive Mojo) featuring various herbs, greens, and other flavor boosters, are meant to be a flexible template for your next six months of green-sauce-making. If you start whipping these up regularly to serve with/on/in literally anything, you’ll inevitably mix and match your way into 20 different variations. Herbs, olive oil, and acid are the central characters, garlic is often present, as are nuts and Parmesan (if you’re making classic pesto). Salty things like capers, olives and anchovies are always fair game if you want to bump up the flavor. (Writing about this, I couldn’t help but remember this marjoram pesto, taught to me by cookbook author Deborah Madison, that I use as a sauce for poached shrimp, and this creamy leek and garlic pesto that makes for an insanely good pasta.)
The traditional way to make basil pesto and its cousins is with a mortar and pestle. This may well be the best way to do it, but even in Genoa, the home of pesto, you’ll find people making it with a food processor, even though they’d never admit it publicly. I’ll admit it publicly: I use a food processor (the mini ones are handy if you’re making small batches). Depending on the herbs/greens you use, green sauce can keep in the fridge anywhere from a day to a week (all the recipes below will specify). You can also stash it in the freezer if you make a lot at once; small containers are best, so it thaws relatively quickly. It’ll keep for a couple months, but I bet it’ll be gone before summer.
The best pesto is made with a mortar and pestle, and in Genoa, where pesto originated, few people will admit to using a food processor. But when you get into their kitchens, that’s just what they do. And so do I.
Don’t add the Parmesan until you’re ready to use the pesto. And to help retain its bright green color, drizzle a layer of olive oil over the top once you’ve put the pesto in a container. Herb pastes made with less oil do not keep as well, so eat them sooner rather than later. If you have a garden filled with basil, by all means make as much pesto as you can and throw it into the freezer. But if you’re using store-bought basil, unless it’s incredibly cheap, you might as well just make pesto in the quantities given here and enjoy it fresh.
Although it is not traditional, you can substitute parsley or any other tender-leafed herb for all or some of the basil, with fine but distinctively different results.
Burcu Avsar & Zach DeSart
Simpler, purer, less complex than traditional pesto, parsley purée is — to me at least — even more useful. For one thing, you can find decent parsley year-round. For another, it’s a brighter, fresher purée and therefore less specific in its uses. And it's the baseline for some really great variations.
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