Fresh Basil in the Market Means Pesto Season Is Here
Have you been seeing a lot of fresh basil in farmers’ markets lately? Have the basil plants in your garden become lush and abundant, seemingly overnight? Yup, that means warm weather is here to stay — and basil is in season.
Basil is an extraordinarily flavorful herb, useful in all sorts of recipes. But it’s the diva in Pesto, where it conspires with olive oil, pine nuts, a hint of garlic, and (almost always) Parmesan cheese to form a substance so addictive that it would be banned if it wasn’t so wholesome. And you can make it in about 5 minutes.
If you have another 10 minutes or so, you can make Pesto Pasta, a stellar main course dish. What’s not to like?
Recipe: Pesto Pasta
Originally, pesto was made with a mortar and pestle (hence the name, which derives from the same Latin root as the English word “pestle”). And some argue that pesto made by hand is superior to the machine-made version. But even if you have a mortar and pestle (which I actually do), who has the time? I don’t, so I use the food processor. In a pinch, you could use a blender.
There are a lot of good Pesto recipes out there, most quite similar, but my favorite is Marcella Hazan’s in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. (She also provides instructions for the mortar method if you’re so inclined.) My recipe is adapted from hers, and makes about a cup. It can easily be scaled up to accommodate more basil.
Pesto will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for about a week. You can freeze it — but if you do so, don’t add the cheese (mix it in after you thaw the frozen Pesto).
To make Pesto Pasta, just combine the Pesto with cooked pasta, add some more Parmesan cheese, and toss. The procedure is very similar to the one we used for Pasta Cacio e Pepe. The pasta recipe serves 4. Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for a day or two, although the quality will diminish.
For the Pesto:
- 2 cups of fresh basil leaves (pack these into the cup tightly to measure; small stems and flowers are OK, but avoid woody stems)
- ~½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons pine nuts (may substitute walnuts)
- 1 or 2 crushed garlic cloves (to taste)
- ~¼ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
- ~1½ ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 2/3 cup when packed)
- 1 pound of long, thin pasta (I prefer linguine; but any shape, including tubular-shaped pasta, works)
- ~1 cup Pesto
- ~1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (to thin the Pesto)
- ~2 tablespoons butter (to enrich the Pesto; optional)
- additional Parmesan cheese to garnish the pasta
For the Pesto:
- Thoroughly wash basil in cold water. Dry in a salad spinner (or pat dry with a dish towel or paper towels).
- Add basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt to bowl of food processor. Process until everything is well mixed and creamy. You may need to stop and scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula once or twice. If your Pesto is too thick, add a bit more olive oil.
- When the ingredients in step 2 are well blended, you can add the cheese and pulse briefly to blend. But I prefer to dump the contents of the food processor into another bowl and blend in the cheese by hand. This gives a more interesting consistency to the Pesto. Taste and add more salt if necessary. If you want to freeze the Pesto, don’t add the cheese now. Instead, add it after you thaw the frozen Pesto.
- The Pesto is now ready to use in the recipe of your choice.
- Bring a large pot of water (at least 4 quarts) to boil. Once it’s boiling, add salt (to taste; I usually add 1 tablespoon per 4 quarts). Then add pasta. Stir pasta to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Bring back to boil, then lower to simmer. If you’re using packaged dry pasta, cook for 7 to 11 minutes (depending on brand), until the pasta reaches the al dente stage. I start testing at 7 minutes. Usually, I find it takes about 8 minutes or so before the pasta is done. If you’re using a particularly thin shape, like angel hair pasta, it may cook in as little as 5 minutes. And fresh pasta cooks in just a minute or two.
- Meanwhile, stir 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil into the Pesto to thin it (add more if necessary). You want the Pesto to reach the consistency of very thick cream. If you wish, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of soft butter to enrich the Pesto (it adds a nice flavor when served with pasta). If you prefer, you can substitute pasta cooking water for the oil. Or you can supplement the oil with cooking water to thin the Pesto (see Notes).
- When the pasta is done, turn off heat and reserve a cup of pasta water. Drain pasta, then return it to the cooking pot (pot should be off heat) or add it to a warmed serving bowl (warm the bowl about a minute before the pasta is done by adding ½ cup or so of pasta cooking water; empty it right before you’re ready to add the pasta).
- Add about half the Pesto to the pasta and toss to lightly coat the pasta strands. (If the pot is over heat, you risk the Pesto lumping up rather than coating the strands evenly). You may want to add some of the pasta cooking water to help the Pesto adhere to the pasta — add just a tablespoon or two. Add the rest of the Pesto and toss again to evenly distribute.
- Serve in pasta bowls or plates, preferably ones that are preheated (I add some hot water to my pasta bowls in order to heat them, then dump the water when I’m ready to serve the pasta). Garnish with extra Parmesan cheese.
- For the Pesto, your ingredient measurements don’t need to be exact, just in the ballpark.
- Butter is traditional in Pesto, and Hazan includes it in her recipe. You can add 2 or 3 tablespoons of softened butter to the Pesto after you’ve mixed in the cheese in step 3 of the Pesto Procedure. Added butter is particularly good if you’ll be serving your Pesto with pasta, and when I make Pesto Pasta I usually do add butter (see Step 2 of the Pasta Procedure).
- Many Pesto recipes call for Romano cheese in addition to Parmesan (Hazan’s does). If you have Romano on hand, you can add 2 tablespoons (grated) in step 3 of the Pesto Procedure. (I’ve seen recipes where Romano replaces Parmesan entirely, but that’s too sharp for my taste.)
- Pine nuts are traditional when making pesto, but they’re quite expensive. And if they’re not stored properly, they can turn rancid. I often (usually) use walnuts instead. There’s little flavor difference, but the price difference is considerable. (Walnuts can turn rancid, too. I always store nuts in the freezer.)
- If you see “pistou” on a French menu, that’s the French version of Pesto (it’s most commonly seen in a soup of the same name). Typically, French pistou doesn’t contain nuts, and often contains tomato.
- Spaghetti is the traditional pasta shape for Pesto Pasta. But I like linguine because I think it has better “mouth feel.” You can even use a tubular pasta like ziti if you want, although I find that Pesto coats thin pastas better than tubular ones.
- You don’t have to thin the Pesto before adding it to the pasta (Step 2 of the Pasta Procedure). But the Pesto won’t coat the pasta as well, and may clump up. If you don’t want to add more oil (which increases the calorie count, but also the flavor), you can just use warm pasta cooking water for thinning.
- If you have lots of basil, you can make multiple batches of Pesto and freeze the extras. Pesto can be used in any number of ways, including as a spread on bread or crackers, as a pizza topping, and as a garnish on grilled chicken or fish.
Grow Your Own
Basil is easy to grow and doesn’t require much room — you can plant a pot or two if you don’t have a garden. We’ve already started picking our home-grown basil, and we’ll be using it all summer. But you still have time to plant some if you’re living in a climate where the weather will be warm for a few more months.
If you don’t want to create a separate herb garden, you can grow basil in your flower beds – it adds a nice splash of green. And when you’re at the garden center buying basil to plant, pick up some parsley, too – it’s another easy-to-grow herb that nestles nicely in flower beds.
“Summer is here!” exclaimed Mrs. Kitchen Riffs when I dished up the Pesto Pasta. “I love Pesto!”
“Lucky we have a mess of basil in the garden,” I said between slurps of linguine.
Then Mrs K R added her own slurp — much more dainty than mine.
Ah, the sweet sounds of summer!
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Pasta Cacio e Pepe
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Old School Macaroni and Cheese
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Tuna Pasta Salad
Tuna Noodle Casserole
We love pesto, too, except my hubby doesn't like it with nuts, so we omit that. We top ours with sweet summer tomatoes. Mmmm... dang it! You are making me hungry!
I love pesto! Pine nuts, almonds, macadamias.. they're all good.
I can't help myself, I always toss in some peas.
Hi Laura, I sometimes leave the nuts out, too. Although they're good, they're kind of like icing on the cake - the basil is the star here, not the nuts. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Maureen, peas? Interesting - I've never thought of that. But I can see how they'd be good. I'll have to give them a try! Thanks for your comment.
I love your pesto pasta but have to admit that I'm also eyeing the garlic bread in the corner :-) I tend to leave the parmesan out of the pesto - only because I have fussy eaters in the house who don't like the taste of the cheese. Our family pesto dish has courgettes and chick peas. Yum! Now I feel like pesto.
I love pesto pasta and make it often. The store bought pesto is a very poor imitation of the real deal and it is so easy to make. My husband is Italian and I lived there for a long time in the north of Italy. The traditional pesto pasta there included a cut up potato which boiled in the water with the pasta. It adds a starch that binds the pesto to the pasta well and is yummy in with the dish as well.
Your photos make this dish look great.
Hi WokandSpoon, yeah, that garlic bread was pretty tasty! The idea of using courgettes (zucchini for those of us in the US) and chick peas is an interesting idea - sounds delicious. I'll have to try that sometime. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Suzanne, I agree the store bought kind just doesn't compare to the freshly made. I like the idea of the potato, particularly how it adds starch to the water. Super idea! Thanks for the kind words, ad the comment.
Pesto pasta is a favourite at my place... I always grow my own basil too:)
fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts, and lots of garlic and Parmesan cheese, I really don't see why anybody won't like pesto. I fell in love with it after the first time I had pesto pasta - the very recipe you are sharing. Thank you for the great post!
Hi Yi, it's great, isn't it? So much flavor. I love basil! Thanks for your comment.
Hi Tania, a favorite here, too! Growing your own basil is so nice, isn't it? You always have lots on hand! Thanks for your comment.
I used to grow my own sweet basil in the pot. They attracted lots of bugs, though. But it is so great to have basil on hand whenever I need. My favorite way of using basil is to mix with chopped tomatoes, garlic, Parmesan, olive oil, and toss with pasta. So refreshingly good! Pesto is a great way to use up the abundant basil leaves.
Hi Holly, I sometimes do a pasta recipe using fresh tomatoes and basil that's similar to yours. Isn't basil great? Thanks for your comment.
I love a simple fresh pesto pasta like this
Just last night while at the store I looked for some basil to make pesto but they were out. Unfortunately I don't have a garden filled with it. I love making pesto though and make it often but have never added butter to it. This sounds like a nice addition when adding to pasta that I must try. I guess I need to head back out today to search for more basil. I really should get a plant and grow my own.
Hi Raymund, isn't it great? Such great flavor for so little effort! Thanks for your comment.
Hi Vicki, it seems to be just at the beginning of the season so I suspect supplies are still a little sketchy. Our plants are producing, but they're nowhere near the size they'll be in a month (at which point we'll have way too much - but we can freeze it!). You should try growing it - it's pretty easy (but do water it if we don't get rain). Thanks for your comment.
Your photos are simply breathtaking, ridiculously beautiful! And your writing also, just looks amazing. You make something so simple seem so gorgeous!
Hi love2dine, :blush: That was a really nice thing to say - thank you so much for your kind words, and for taking time to comment.
Made me smile - I grow about 20 basil plants which keeps me in pesto for the year! Cannot get enough of it and love the ease. That opening photo says it all!
Hi Claudi, 20 plants is a lot of pesto! But for the entire year? Yeah, that sounds about right. ;-) Thanks for your comment.
I grow my own basil in the summer, then make tubs of pesto to freeze so I can enjoy it all year round. Gotta get my pesto pasta fix, no matter what. ;)
Hi Carolyn, I need to freeze more pesto. I do some, but not enough to last me through the winter like Claudia does (comment above yours). Pesto really is addicting, isn't it? ;-) Thanks for your comment.
A simple pesto pasta dish like this is one of my favorite dishes to make after a hard day. It's so comforting and you can't beat the flavor! I usually have frozen pesto which makes these lazy kitchen nights even easier! Last summer I read some where that omitting the cheese when you freeze it keeps it from turning brown when you thaw it - a problem I've always had. I tried it and it works! I just grate the cheese before serving. Like Carolyn above, I grow a lot of basil so I freeze a lot of pesto! The only difference between your recipe and mine is that I add about 1/2 cup parsley because I grow a lot of it also. :) Great recipe!
Hi mjskit, isn't the flavor incredible? And I agree, so nice to have quick dishes that deliver big flavor. I do freeze some pesto, but I definitely need to start freezing more. Maybe I should plant a few more basil plants . . . ;-) Thanks for your comment.
looks utterly delishh ...yumm
I can finally eat pesto because my kids started to eat it! Last year, they would not accept it no matter how much I tried. All the sudden, they enjoy pesto in pasta, sandwich, pizza.. it's great! I'll probably make pesto pasta tomorrow lunch thanks to your inspiration. :-)
My grandmother taught me how to make Pesto when I was just a wee little thing. She had basil growing in her window box of her city apartment and without fail whenever we arrived on Sundays, she would pick the fresh basil, fetch the mortar and pestle and we knew it was pesto making time!
Unfortunately, my basil is growing quite slow this year in this fickle weather we're having. I await, patiently:)
Thank you so much for sharing this dish and for all your useful tips. I once froze pesto with the cheese in it and I never want to make that mistake again!
Hi Jay, it is! Thanks for your comment.
Hi Nami, delighted to hear pesto is back on your menu! And happy I inspired your next lunch. ;-) Thanks for your comment.
Hi Louise, I think the texture of pesto made with the mortar and pestle is actually superior to that made in the food processor - it has a great creaminess. But it's not that huge of a difference and I'm lazy, so I always use the machine. We're having a dry summer but we've been watering our basil, so it's been growing nicely. Anyway, thanks for your comment.
I just harvested my basil this past weekend and used it in a Sunday all-day marinara and in vegan meatballs--yum! I planted two extra pots of basil from seed. I adore basil! Lovely pics (as usual) and post!
I've made pesto some time ago and I was so proud of it. I used it for sandwiches, but I like your idea to mix it with pasta. Very nice recipe.
Hi Kelly, given your passion for gardening, I figured you'd have plenty of basil! Thanks for the kinds words, and the comment.
Hi Marta, pesto is really nice in sandwiches too. And that's even quicker than pasta! Thanks for your comment.
I feel like I never left Italy....I love pesto and thanks for all the great tricks and pointers. Pesto can be used in so many dishes and now that basil is coming up for harvest what a great thing to make. I am thinking a little drizzle of it on a fathers day flank steak with some lovely grilled zucchini and peppers as well.
Hi Bam, pesto on a steak sounds delish! And I love to grill veggies - zucchini and peppers are some of my favorites. One of the great things about pesto is how versatile it is - if it sounds good, it probably is! Thanks for your comment.
Oh how I love pesto! I've never tried adding butter, but I will next time for sure. I love Marcella Hazan and am surprised I haven't tried her recipe before. I'll be trying your version next time for sure!
Hi Katherine, most pesto recipes are more or less the same - just little tweaks here and there. But anything Marcella Hazan does is worth trying, IMO. Thanks for your comment.
Ah, I have yet to try making my own pesto, but this recipe looks so wonderfully fresh!
Hi Courtney, pesto does have a wonderful, fresh taste. Good stuff - you'll enjoy it when you get around to trying it. Thanks for commenting.
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