basil pesto American style

by Stevie on June 19, 2009

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basil pesto American style with an heirloom tomato salad

basil pesto American style with an heirloom tomato salad

I didn’t know much about regional Italian cooking when I first discovered a recipe for “winter pesto” in a Moosewood cookbook that I had about twenty years ago. To be quite honest, I didn’t really know how to cook much of anything at that point. Pesto was a completely new concept for me then. The winter pesto was for preparing when fresh basil leaves weren’t available. It involved using fresh spinach as a substitute and adding dried basil for the flavor and lemon juice. Otherwise I’ve come to learn that the recipe is fairly similar to the classic Genovese kind.

I tried making Winter Pesto for Heguiberto when we first moved to California but he didn’t like it. “Why not just use fresh basil instead of spinach?” he’d complain. These days, you can easily find fresh basil in supermarkets and produce markets. I kept the lemon because the acid tartness breaks up the oiliness a bit in a really nice way. Plus it preserves the color of the pesto.

Basil Pesto American Style


1 to 2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 lg. bunch fresh basil, cleaned with large stems removed
¼ to ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
juice of one lemon
salt and black pepper to taste
¼ cup pignoli nuts, toasted (I sometimes use walnuts or almonds if I’ve run out of pignoli)
¼ cup parmigiano reggiano cheese, grated
1 package long pasta, prepared following package directions

1. Using a food processor, chop the garlic cloves. (I usually fry the garlic on the stove in a little olive oil just before this step to reduce its pungency. Raw is the classic though.) Push chopped garlic to bottom of food processor bowl.

2. Add basil leaves, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Run processor until smooth. If paste is too thick add more oil.

3. Add nuts and blend until just chopped.

4. Add most of the cheese and pulse a few times to mix.

5. Mix pesto with cooked pasta in a large serving dish. I usually save a bit of the pesto to smear over the top of the finished pasta then sprinkle with remaining cheese. I also like to add a final splash of olive oil to the top to make the dish extra tasty.

Serve this with salad and red wine. As an alternative to basil, I’ve tried the same recipe with baby arugula and with parsley. The tastes are different but also quite good. The only time this recipe really failed me is when I tried it with fresh mint. The finished dish tasted too much like toothpaste!

this is so good that you'll lick your plate clean, too

this is so good that you'll lick your plate clean, too

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Lucia Silver June 19, 2009 at 10:12 am

I really enjoy reading your blog. Being in the restaurant business makes me appreciate all your notes and suggestions. Have you being to Fleur de Lis? I would love to hear your comments about it.
By the way, the empty plate picture gave me the idea of licking it. I am sorry about my bad manners.

Heguiberto June 19, 2009 at 11:51 am

Hello Lúcia,
Thanks for checking out the blog. We have been enjoying working on it! All the recipes are tested/tasted by the WC crew. This pesto is one of my favorite dishes! I can never have enough. As for the “fleur de lis” restaurant yes we have been though much before we started this blog project. We need to go back and write about it here! The are some amazing restaurants in Bay Area.

Mrs Joe Orton June 20, 2009 at 7:11 pm

I completely agree with Hegui–there’s nothing like fresh basil to make into pesto.

Living in California, do you grow fresh basil on your balcony all year round?

Those of us who live in wintery climates are jealous. But we still appreciate the recipes.

Mrs Joe Orton

Stevie June 20, 2009 at 7:19 pm

We couldn’t possibly grow fresh basil anywhere where we live. We’d eat it way too fast for the plant to survive to maturity! You should try it with arugula. That’s very good too. I’ve made a variation that I’ll have to post soon with artichoke hearts. Its really more of a dip but the concept is actually quite similar to the basil pesto. Keep cooking Ms Orton!

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