Pesto: The Elegant Sauce

pesto sauceThere’s nothing lighter, spicier – and incidentally, more elegantly frugal – than a plate of pasta with vivid green garlicky-with-cheese-and-nuts pesto sauce. This Italian dish, meaning literally “to pound or crush,” seems to have started with the Romans, but its earliest publication was 1863, in a cookbook by Giovanni Battista Ratto. (You can also eat it Provence-style as pistou – but the French don’t use nuts.)

Pesto’s main ingredient: aromatic basil. It probably came first from North Africa, but was used in India, as well. The Italians were soon growing it themselves, especially in Genoa. (Pesto’s full name is Pesto Genovese.)

It grows easily in pots or your garden during the summer season. Many supermarkets also carry basil plants or bunches. It’s renewable: as long as you keep clipping, the plant keeps producing. Move your pots indoors when cold weather comes, and they’ll keep on doing their thing.

Basil’s wonderful in leaf form, tucked in the layers of a lasagna or spread over a pizza crust and topped with cheese. But it’s even better as pesto! The basic recipe:

Pesto With Parsley

  • 3 cups packed fresh basil leaves
  • 4 cloves
  • 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup olive
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts (substitute walnuts if you’re not a Westerner – I rather like almonds, too)
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley (most true pestos don’t include this, but it’s ok)

Combine basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and nuts in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Blend to a smooth paste. Add parsley if desired. Makes about one cup. (The basic link is here.)

 Pesto, Italian Grandmother Style

  • 1 large bunch of basil, leaves only, washed and dried
  • 3 medium cloves of garlic
  • one small handful of raw pine nuts
  • roughly 3/4 cup Parmesan, loosely packed and FRESHLY GRATED
  • A few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

This one takes more effort – but it’s worth it. You don’t need a blender or food processor: just your hands and a good sharp knife, preferably an Italian mezzaluna. Chop the garlic up with about 1/3 of the basil – once it’s done, gradually chop and add the rest. (Heidi of 101 Cookbooks says, “I scrape and chop, gather and chop.”) Gradually add the pine nuts and parmesan, a half at a time, until you’ve got a minced-up “cake”-style mass. Put your pesto in a bowl, drizzle the oil over – but don’t mix until just before use. Makes about one cup.(Look here for the full link, thanks to 101 Cookbooks. You’ll want to explore this amazing site more, anyways.)

What does pesto go with? Its original and still best friend is pasta of any kind. But it’s also tasty spread on focaccia or fresh-baked pizza crust, mixed with gnocchi or ravioli, or even topping a baked potato. The easiest way to store pesto: freeze it in small containers or ice-cube trays. (There are even custom-made pesto containers out there…though hardly frugal.) Thaw a batch out on the coldest day of winter and slather it on flatbread. Ahhh….summer’s back again.

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Cindy Brick

Cindy Brick is a personal property appraiser, judge and national teacher who loves to write about frugality and other personal finance topics. She has written six books and hundreds of articles, but often focuses on quilting, her teaching specialty. She lives in Colorado with her husband, two golden labs and a flock of very suspicious chickens. Find out more at Brickworks,, or visit her personal blog:

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