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How to Make Pesto

Buying it out of the jar? Cheater. Get the lowdown on this flavorful paste...then make it yourself.

Photo: Antonis Achilleos

1. Pesto isn’t always green. The name of this pasta partner simply refers to the method of making it. “Pesto” is the past-tense of “to pound or crush” in Italian.

2. The sauce originated in Northern Italy, in the city of Genoa in the Liguria region. One theory is that it developed in Mediterranean coastal cities during siege times because, once made, pesto keeps well. Others believe it was imported from Northern Africa in the time of the Roman Empire.

3. The traditional way to serve pesto is tossed with pasta, tiny new potatoes, and green beans, with additional Parmesan cheese to sprinkle on top.

4. The classic pesto noodle, called tofie, is a short, rolled noodle. You can also pair it with smoother ones, such as penne, tagliatelle, and gnocchi.

5. Some variations of pesto use olives, though it’s not to be confused with tapenade, a French spread usually consisting of pureed or finely chopped black olives, capers, anchovies, and olive oil.

6. Basil isn’t always a pesto staple. Arugula, parsley, spinach, mint, or cilantro can be substituted for basil.

7. Don’t use a garlic press when making pesto. It crushes the garlic cell walls, resulting in a bitter taste. Blanch cloves for a few seconds for a sweeter flavor. Roasted garlic is too mild and won’t register in the finished dish.

8. You don’t always need to use pignolis, or pine nuts. Sub in cashews, walnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, or even pistachios.

9. When making pesto, try swapping Pecorino Romano or ricotta salata cheese for traditional Parmesan.

10. A food processor is the best alternative to a mortar and pestle, but it changes the texture. Use plastic or wooden serving utensils to prevent oxidation and discoloration.

11. For the freshest taste, make sure the pesto doesn’t cook. Don’t throw it into a pot of pasta or skillet with sauteed shrimp until you turn off the heat.

12. When refrigerating pesto, put a layer of olive oil on top of the mixture to help preserve freshness and color.

13. Cooking trick: Pour a bit of starchy pasta cooking water into the bowl as you mix pasta and pesto for a creamier consistency. It shouldn’t seem oily and sparse.

14. Make it ahead and freeze it for later in reused glass jars from olives, pimentos, and capers. Just leave out the cheese (you can add it later). Cheese can break down when thawed, leaving the pesto watery. The most important pesto storage tip (for color, freshness, and taste): Salt it well. If frozen, it can keep up to six months.

15. Pesto purists swear by a mortar and pestle. This is a two-part tool often made of granite, marble, porcelain, or wood material -- and it's best for pesto because it preserves the flavor and texture.

Search our recipe gallery for pesto dishes

-- Maria Ricapito

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