Pesto: Basil and Beyond

— by Ethel G. Hofman

Say pesto — think basil. Basil is the main ingredient in the classic Italian savory mixture. Press one of the green, buttery leaves between your fingers and you’ll be hit with a burst of perfume somewhere between licorice, mint and cloves.

Traditionally, pesto is a pounded paste of basil, pine nuts, olive oil and parmesan cheese. The origin is vague but some 17th century letters found in the archives of Genoa mention a basil based dressing called battuto d’aglio, literally battered garlic. The ancient method used a mortar and pestle to crush the ingredients into a coarse, pungent paste. By 21st century standards, the food processor makes short work of grinding the ingredients.

Four recipes after the jump.
Stroll along Genoa streets and you’ll see little pots of basil on every balcony. Sweet basil is the most widely used but there are more than 60 varieties all of which differ slightly in appearance and taste. Varieties such as lemon basil, anise and cinnamon basil, all subtly reflect the flavors in their name. If you’re a gardener, it’s likely that basil is one of your favorite and most versatile herbs.

Today, the aromatic paste is definitely mainstream. Just one heaping spoonful packs a powerful punch to every savory dish from soups to pasta. Gather handfuls from your garden or buy from the market to fix a batch at home and pesto is inexpensive. Buy it from the store, and a small container, less than 8 ounces, may cost more than $4. To store basil, wrap loosely in a damp paper towel and refrigerate in the vegetable bin up to four days or spoon into small airtight containers and freeze.

While not strictly authentic, pesto may also be prepared as a pareve variety. When basil is expensive use a mixture of green herbs. My late Aunt Hanni described making it “with anything green.” A pareve pesto may be a mixture of green onions, spinach, dill, and lots of parsley. Extra virgin olive oil, a hint of mayonnaise, and kosher or sea salt to season compensates for parmesan cheese. The result is a tongue-tingling, refreshing blend.    

The pesto recipes below may be refrigerated up to 5 days or pack in a small, tight-lidded container and freeze. Thaw or defrost it in a microwave before using.

Classic Pesto (dairy)

makes about 1 1/2 cups

  • 3 cups basil leaves, packed
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 2 large cloves garlic, cut up or 1 1/2 teaspoons prepared chopped garlic
  • about 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  1. Place the basil leaves, cheese, pine nuts and garlic in the food processor. Process just until leaves and nuts are coarsely chopped.
  2. Pour in enough olive oil to make a thick mixture. Do not process until smooth. It should not have a baby-food consistency.
  3. Use at room temperature.  

Pareve “Pesto”

makes about 1 1/4 cups

You should have 3 cups total of assorted greens, excluding the green onions. Change amounts as desired or available.

  • 2 small green onions, sliced
  • 1/4 cup walnut pieces
  • 1 cup parsley sprigs
  • 2 cups baby spinach leaves, packed
  • 1 cup dill fronds, packed
  • 1 dill pickle, cut up
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise
  • kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
  1. In the food processor, place the green onions and walnuts. Process for 6 seconds.
  2. Add the parsley, spinach, dill and pickle. Process until coarsely chopped.
  3. Add the olive oil, lemon juice and mayonnaise. Process until leaves are finely chopped.
  4. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. Refrigerate until needed.

Sun-dried Tomato Pesto (dairy)

makes about 1 1/4 cups

  • 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 cups basil leaves, packed
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro sprigs
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup walnuts
  • about 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
  1. Soften tomatoes by placing in a small saucepan with 1/2 cup vegetable broth. Cover.
    Bring to boil over medium high heat. Let stand for 15 minutes. Drain well. Pat dry with paper towels.  
  2. Place in food processor with the basil leaves, cilantro, garlic, cheese and walnuts. Process coarsely.
  3. Pour in enough olive oil to moisten. Process until mixture is fairly smooth.
  4. Use at room temperature.

Pesto Parmesan Cheesecake (dairy)

serves 10-12 as appetizer

  • 2 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
  • 16 ounces low fat cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup part skim ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika pepper
  • 1/3 cup classic pesto
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  1. Preheat oven to 325F.
  2. Line the bottom of a 7-inch springform pan with parchment paper.
  3. Spray bottom and sides with non-stick cooking spray.
  4. In a small bowl, mix the breadcrumbs and 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese. Coat springform pan with mixture. Set aside.
  5. In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese, ricotta cheese, remaining 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, salt and cayenne pepper.
  6. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Correct seasoning with a little more salt if desired.
  7. Transfer half the mixture into another bowl. Whisk the paprika into the cheese mixture in one bowl.
  8. Fold the pesto into mixture in the second bowl. Pour the pesto-cheese mixture into the prepared springform pan. Carefully spoon the paprika-cheese mixture over. Sprinkle with the pine nuts.
  9. Bake in preheated oven for 1 1/4 hours or until the center is firm. Place on a wire rack to cool completely.
  10. Run a knife around sides to loosen. Release springform clasp to remove. May be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight.
  11. Serve on a platter with crackers or sliced cucumbers.

© Ethel G. Hofman 2013

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