So This Is How You Do Pesto

January 9, 2013

My husband hates pesto. In fact, I believe he may have infected me with his ill-will toward this otherwise pleasing ingredient, because I’m not sure how I feel about pesto anymore either. But that doesn’t stop me from mixing up a gigantic batch of it every year.

Pesto was once one of those epiphany foodstuffs for me (ala sushi, ala Lychee martinis, ala Sriracha sauce), where once I tasted it, life seemed a few iotas better than it was the day before. Now I wonder if pesto is ultimately more like a kid-food…yummy like mac and cheese but not much more.

I dunno. Maybe I had one too many California Pizza Kitchen pesto creations. Maybe what once seemed exotic and special to me went too far downmarket. The jury’s currently out for me and pesto.

— There’s always a mad dash at the end of the summer to put up everything. —

— An army couldn’t use up all the herbs I dry each year. —

But I think the real reason I make pesto is the same reason I dry chiles, make pickles, whip up jam and simmer sauce. It’s my desperate attempt to hang on to what was once living, vibrant and beautiful in my garden. In pesto’s case: my rolling hills of late summer basil.

I am a sucker for seed catalog descriptor paragraphs, therefore I grow all sorts of basil. Too many sorts, too much of my garden real estate. Anything that says “big, serrated leaves” or “heady, licorice aroma” or “lemon-scented heirloom” and I eagerly fork over the $3.95 and wait at the mailbox, shovel in hand, for my seed packets to arrive.

And I plant it all. Don’t hold back. I’m an herb-growing-glutton.

— I grow a hundred times more herbs than any human needs. —

Basil takes a while to poke its nose out from the ground. Sometimes I just cuddle up with a good book (Easy Composters You Can Build for instance) under the tomato plants and wait for ages for my basil to germinate. And sometimes, impatient as all get-out, I clip those lil’ 1/8″ sprouts and add a handful to my salad (Thai basil makes for a perfect micro-green).

Soon thereafter, once those sprouts begin to take hold, the basil moves in. I have to walk through a thicket of it just to pluck an eggplant I remember planting behind it.

And round about August, when the days have grown long and hot and the upstate ticks have grown fat and happy, my forest of over-zealous basil planting begins to take over like Justin Timberlake on a Saturday Night Live episode – I forget anyone else was ever in the cast. I’m focused and smitten.

It is then that every meal in the house consists of tri colore salad, every bouquet on the table includes an armful of colorful basil, and every grilled chop is garnished with a full Afro of green. “It’s edible landscaping…very trendy,” I assure the family.

And so, whether I love it or not, I crank out pesto.

Sure enough, in the dead of winter, when the hot chocolates have been had and the chicken is roasting, and the lettuce is long gone, and the semi-vegetarians-except-for-bacon are clamoring, I am thankful that I have had the good sense to put my basil up.

Pesto always screams summer.

— Pesto perfectly captures those halcyon days of summer. —

My favorite types of basil:

Thai – a gorgeous, aromatic, micro-green with a pretty purple flowers for bouquets when it matures.

Genovese – that big, hunky, Italian, pesto-y kind of basil. I grow way too much.

Tulsi – holy basil from India. Intoxicating, sweet scent. Makes for beautious bouquets.

Bush Basil – when you are sun-challenged or have less than ideal conditions, go bush.

Mrs. Burns – any basil with a formal prefix and I’m in. Lemony.

Dark Opal – for color more than anything. As dark as bulls blood.

— Genovese Basil. I grow gobs of it. —


Pesto can be made with any leafy green herb, really. Parsley pesto is luscious on roast chicken (I had a boyfriend who wooed me with this combo once). Mint pesto is to lamb what mint jelly….well, what mint jelly is supposed to be to lamb. And basil pesto is entirely different using different types of basil. I’d like to make Shiso pesto too…maybe this summer.

The idea with pesto is that you’re making a paste with some combination of leafy herb + flavorful oil + nut + optional Parmesan. I don’t add garlic to the pesto itself, which is potentially a crime, but I think it quickly gets overwhelmed by the raw-garlicky taste. Instead I finely chop or make a paste and add it separately (and sparingly).

You can Google search a thousand precise recipes, but I think pesto is more about mixing, matching, adding and taste-testing to your specs on that particular day. 


Basil (or parsley or mint)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (you can try other flavorful oils here, like pumpkin or hemp)

Pine nuts (or walnuts or almonds)

Parmesan is optional, but I always use it in basil pesto and never in parsley pesto. I grate or chop it finely beforehand.

Sea salt (salt is a key ingredient and too little is a disaster – constant tasting is key)

I use a food processor fitted with a blade. As usual, I’ve tried to cheat and make pesto with a blender or an immersion blender only to be left with a depressing mess. I hate that haste makes waste, because I adore haste – but alas, ’tis true.

1. Get as much basil as you can muster. This may be a package from the store or an armful from your garden. Pick off the leaves and compost (yay!) the stems. Clean and dry the leaves as well as possible.

2. Stuff all the clean, dry basil leaves into the food processor and begin adding oil slowly down the chute as you click the process button. If I’m adding parm, I’ll do so here. The basil will begin to mash down into a paste as you add enough oil.

3. It is at this point that I start adding a few handfuls of nuts. I usually use pine nuts for basil pesto and walnuts for parsley pesto. Do I want it thick or thin? Nutty or herby? Hmm…what is my meal in the mood for?

4. I add some salt. Then more salt. Then I taste it. Usually it still needs even more salt (but admittedly I’m a fiend). Then I decide if it should be thinner or stay like it is. More oil. More nuts. More salt. I keep going until, like Goldilocks, my bed of pesto feels just right.

— Too thick? Too thin? There’s no right way it must be. —

Now, here’s where it gets kind of Martha Stewart-y….


5. Then, yes, I have special pesto-only ice cube trays. I plunk globs of the gunk into the trays and freeze it. WHY? Because an entire 1 quart block of pesto is a pain in the buttsky; little dainty cubes of pesto, on the other hand, are eminently usable.

6. Once frozen, I scoop the pesto cubes out and seal them in packs. This may seem ridiculously QVC of me, but sometimes these sorts of appliances and goofy techniques are called for. Believe me, a freezer full of sealed, labelled packs of summer veggies, pesto ice cubes, and pre-marinated pork chops is a thing of beauty.

— Popsicle molds work too. —

And in winter, when Mrs. Burns is at the bottom of the compost heap, when the mittens are hanging in front of the fireplace and the ground is far from green, I pull my pesto cubes from the freezer and squeeze a few out onto a piping hot bow of bow-tie pasta.

While my husband is right and pesto may not be the be-all-end-all of what the culinary world has to offer us, it is the second life for my summer basil bounty. I’m happy that food lives on in this way – not as fanciful or as heady as it once was, but still a precious reminder of what was and what is still to come.

— Increase your Carbo Footprint with a toothsome spoonful of bow ties and pesto. —

Take your boots off before you come in here!

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

john Beach

Beautiful. You are the Pesto Oracle!


Jennifer Solow

Thanks for the nod. Always nice to be the Oracle of something, jB!



I love reading your blogs! They always make me smile… and now I will always think of Justin Timberlake when I smell basil!!
When Mom and Dad were still here we tried a Japanese/Korean restaurant for the first time. One of the things we ordered was yellowtail tartare which came on a bed of sushi rice with a layer of pesto in between topped with some tobiko and a quail’s egg on top. Ooooohh it was delicious. Can’t say I’ve ever had a pesto/sushi combination before…


Jennifer Solow

Merci, Jordan!

And thanks for noticing the Justin Timberlake –>basil segue. I know it was a reach but happy you appreciated.


jennifer ziegler

AMEN sista Jen! I’m sold! I am now a willing convert, to give the church of pesto another try. Heavy garlic isn’t my thing either. I have frozen cilantro pesto in the freezer as we speak, for the same reasons you just mentioned… “never let an awesome herb to to waste.”


Jennifer Solow

Totally forgot about cilantro pesto!! How could I?! Another great idea…thanks, JZ!


Stewart Putney

Great post…we are with you on using less garlic…so much better to taste the basil!


Jennifer Solow

Thanks, Stewart! Hope you’re having a lovely January down Putneyway!


Nan Solow

While reading your blog, several things happen. I get hungry. Very. I marvel at your love for every variety of tastes a garden can yield. I promise myself I will actually try some of the recipes. ( It hasn’t happened yet, but you inspire me to spend more time in the kitchen.) And always, it makes me smile to know how much joy you derive from gardening, cooking, entertaining, and filling countless bowls and platters with your gifts.


Jennifer Solow

Thanks, Mama.


Aia Bower

Chère Miss Muddy Kitchen,

OK, I admit that I have been buying our pesto from the tall gorgeous guy that sells it (along with other delicious goodies such as tapenade, artichoke spread, olive oils & flavored vinegars) at the Friday marché in Lourmarin, but your recipe, and photos make me want to make some fresh. Today, and I only just finished le petit déjeuner!

Thank you for the much-needed and appreciated lesson. Can’t wait to try it.

Love & bisous from Provence!



Oh, we share the same pesto-epiphany-growth curve! Great pst. Delightful insights!


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