Basil Pesto

76 Comments

Basil pesto is such a huge deal in my house. Mostly because my husband could eat it on ice cream, practically.

To me, pesto is an extremely versatile ingredient. This flavorful, emerald-colored paste can be added to soups, breads, meat, seafood, salad dressings, sauces, marinades, and so many other dishes.

The only thing is, you have to make it. You can buy prepared pesto, but it’s expensive; home made is better.

All you need are a few basil plants, some dirt, a little water, and lots of sun. I’ve been growing basil for over 35 years in Texas and Oklahoma, and I don’t end up with basil plants – I have basil bushes. And the weather in these states can be brutal. So trust me – there’s no green thumb requirement for growing basil.

Today I’m making a batch of traditional basil pesto based on how it’s made in the Ligurian region of Italy where basil grows in abundance, called pesto alla Genovese.

I’ve always heard that the best Italian pesto is made only from baby basil leaves, but I use the larger leaves as well, as long as they’re not “leathery.” And I just buy domestic basil plants locally.

The only other thing I do when I make a batch of pesto is not add cheese. Omitting cheese saves space in my freezer; it probably cuts the pesto volume by 50%. Then when I use pesto and want cheese, I freshly grate it.

Also, with having non-cheesy pesto, it is basically another ingredient than the cheesy version. For example, the non-cheesy pesto can go in soups, in a vinaigrette, or a marinade, where cheese isn’t a necessary component.

Here’s my recipe for a batch of pesto, when you have an abundance of fresh basil. There’s no exact recipe, and you’re welcome to alter it to your own tastes.

After I pick the basil branches in the morning, I set them outside to let the creepy-crawlers escape. I don’t know if it really works, but it makes me feel better.

Basil Pesto (Cheeseless)
Makes about 72 ounces

4 ounces of pine nuts, I toast mine
Approximately 10 ounces of good olive oil
2 heads garlic, cloves peeled
Basil leaves – from a giant armful of branches

Place the pine nuts, olive oil, and garlic in a large blender jar. Blend until smooth. This is an important step so the rest of the pesto-making process is only about adding leaves.

Then begin adding leaves, making sure they are soft, and void of damage, bugs, or webs.

There’s a point when you can barely blend in the last leaves, as in the photo above. If you must, add a tablespoon of oil, and play with your blender to get the pesto nice and smooth. Then you will end up with this.

Spatula the pesto into sterilized jars. The pesto can be refrigerated but I freeze until needed, and thaw one jar at a time.

Now to the pesto pasta. Choose a 1-pound package of pasta, and cook it to the package directions.

Drain the pasta, then place it back the still-hot pot. Add some pesto, I used about 1 cup of what I’d just made, but we like it strong. Add about the same amount of grated cheese, or to your liking. Then gently stir.

Serve the pasta while it’s nice and warm and the cheese has melted. You can also add some evaporated milk, goat milk, or cream to the pesto for a creamier pasta dish.

If you’ve never made pesto, this one would be a good recipe with which to start.

Pesto oxidates easily, but just on the surface area. Stir it up and the pesto will still be emerald green.

To prevent this in the jar, pour a little olive oil on top of the pesto.

Once you get the hang of pesto, it’s fun and easy to switch out the herbs, and use different nuts and even seeds, to create unique pestos.

Here are some other ways I’ve made and used pesto.

76 thoughts on “Basil Pesto

  1. Great idea to delay adding the cheese. I love pesto and truly the pesto I had in Genoa a couple of months ago was amazing; so different to what I’d had before. But like you I enjoy making it and it’s so easy and nicer than bought. Like your ideas for using it; it’s more versatile than we often think. I put some into a risotto last night.

    • Exactly. it’s just fabulous stuff. When we were in Cinque Terra we watched a woman make pesto with a mortar and pestle, then later enjoyed her white lasagna made with the pesto. Incredible.

    • Small batches are great. Even a leftover tablespoon can be made into a vinaigrette. But with large batches, tedious as they are to make, you end up with jars of it. I label mine with the date, and if they’re not traditional pesto (pumpkin seed plus basil plus cilantro plus jalapeño) and I always have at least a dozen jars through out the winter.

  2. I love pesto, too! How doesn’t, really? Good idea to freeze it without the cheese. Adding the cheese later not only saves on space, it gives pre-frozen pesto a freshness it wouldn’t otherwise have.

    • And sometimes you want a different amount of cheese, so it allows you to do that. Thanks so much for your comment!

  3. I have tried growing basil for many years in my coastal garden without any luck. But I love pesto and make it all the time. Last night I put some leftover pesto on some sliced tomatoes topped it with fresh mozzarella and drizzled it with balsamic vinegar. I love your idea of freezing the pesto without the cheese.

    • It truly becomes like a different food/seasoning than pesto with cheese. In fact I think it’s more versatile.

    • Oh I’m so glad! I almost didn’t post on pesto, but I’m glad I did. I’m old so I’ve been making it for a long time, but there are young cooks just getting into cooking (yay!) who haven’t made it, so it’s a good thing!!!

  4. Thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe. I have never made it, but I am sure it beats any store bought pesto. I hope it share it with our readers on Sunday afternoon at Dishing It & Digging it Link party.

    • Like anything, home made is always better. You don’t have to make as big of a batch, but it freezes beautifully!

  5. It’s a staple at my house too as it is the most effcient way to use all the basil I have. And it is delicious. I often make crostini with pesto, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella.

  6. I am a pesto lover, too… but have to make it garlic free! No one ever misses the garlic, though, because “it’s all about the basil” (apologies to Megan Trainor). The nonna I met in Vernazza who taught me to make it (in a mortar and pestle) gave me her secret – add a “nit of butter” at the end to keep it creamy and smooth. :)

    • Fascinating! I would never have thought to add butter. She must have been part French! Actually to me pesto is about basil AND garlic; I used two heads in my one batch. But without garlic, it’s certainly all about the basss…il!

  7. Only after you mentioned it did I realise that cheese does indeed increase the volume, nevert thought of that before. Also, most people make basil pesto with parmesan cheese, which is too sharp for me, so this cheese-free version is something I will definitely make.
    Luckily on my balcony creepy crawlies can not get into my basil plant, so that’s one thing I’m being spared :-)

    • Hahahahaha! Nice. It really seems like if I set the branches out for a while I have less spiders and other bugs… Have you ever used goat cheese with pesto? It’s outstanding.

  8. Wow! Is this your garden Mimi? Super impressive, you have quite the green thumb. We love pesto and this time of the year with basil in prime season, plan to make the most of it. Love all of your recipe ideas.

  9. Miamm! ;-) Basil, Basilic is so Precious. Very good Health Benefit. When I don’t have fresh basil, I usually take 1 to 3 dops (from time to time) of ocimum basilicum (Essential oil) with Organic olive oil in a *plastic soup spoon, et Hop! in the mouth :). *essential oil can’t be used in a Metal spoon. :) Merci Mimi ;-)

  10. You’re so right, basil is so easy to grow, even in pots. Your garden looks amazing. Basil pesto is so good on so many things. When I have an abundance of fresh basil, I just run the basil and ovo in the blender and then freeze it in ice trays. Once frozen, pop the bail cubes out and into a zip lock bag and back in the freezer. Then in the winter when I want fresh pesto I thaw a few cubes or just pop a cube or two in the soup pot. Great post!

  11. Super! I’m salivating! Also loved to have peeked into your garden. You sure have basil bushes growing in your garden :) I’m gonna have to try omitting the cheese too on my next batch of pesto. It all looks absolutely delicious. :)

  12. Mimi, I love pesto! And I used to make it, but I never figured out why it was other-worldly good when I had it in Italy, but now I know – Ha – I used to kind of skimp on the olive oil and the cheese. Now, like you, I make it in a big batch, and freeze it. But your idea of not adding the cheese until cooking is positively brilliant! Thanks for sharing. I also love the nice amount of garlic you use – definitely going to do that next time, too! Thanks!

    • To me, it’s about the basil and garlic both! It’s just how I prefer it. Omitting the cheese saves room, and then you get to freshly grate it or even use other cheeses when serving.Thank you!

  13. I grow basil year-round in my garden, and yet I don’t think I utilize it at all well enough! I have made fresh pesto, but never made “ahead” to freeze, so you’ve really inspired me. The photos alone made me hungry! :-)

    • Oh goodness! You definitely need to get it in jars and freeze them. I thaw one at a time, and whether I use a lot, or just a tablespoon, it’s fresh and flavorful.

    • Yes, I recommended that in the post. It makes a really nice creamy pesto flavor. I’ve even used goat milk, but cream definitely works.

  14. Your pesto making project looks very similar to ours! Every other year or so we make a huge batch of pesto. I say every other year only because we make so much (and freeze it) that it takes almost 2 years to work our way through it. But I love having homemade basil ready at a moment’s notice. Great tips here, and that pasta looks delicious!

  15. Pesto is perfect this time of year. There’s an old Italian saying, “make pesto while the sun shines” which is a common-sense road map for dealing with summer’s great affluence of basil. But it’s also a metaphor for these glory days of summer. Because when summer rolls around it is easy to find yourself knee-deep in the stuff. Did I really mean to plant, buy, beg, borrow or steal quite so much basil? I’m going to steal your no cheese idea later this month when I start pulling my basil plants out by the roots just to keep them under control. GREG

    • So they obviously grow well in L.A. also! They can get so huge! I’ve already made 3 large batches of pesto this summer, but they keep growing. Mine won’t winter over, so come October they’re out.

  16. I really admire your basil bushes. I have tried to grown basil several times but it always dies when it gets cold. Even tried to freeze it- but then wilts when it thaws. I like the idea of using pesto in ‘scroll rolls- looks yummy!

    • Thank you. It doesn’t get really cold here until November, occasionally in October. So I’ll probably get another batch out of my plants!

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