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Since You Asked: 'Pesto' has infinite potential

What exactly qualifies as a "pesto"? I thought it always included pine nuts. But I've seen a lot of things lately that don't contain pine nuts, yet are called "pesto."

— Chris C., Medford

Pesto comes from an Italian word that means "pounded." It originally was made with a mortar and a pestle, a stubby tool used to crush ingredients together.

These days, pesto is most easily made in a food processor. But rather than grinding everything up together, our kitchen gurus swear by grinding the nuts and cheese separately, then folding those two ingredients by hand into the pureed garlic-herb-oil mixture.

The classic version, of course, is basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan and olive oil. But pesto is one of those concepts with almost infinite variations, including ones that omit nuts or dairy to accommodate food allergies or special diets.

One way to make a cheese-free pesto with a silkier texture is to add a few ounces of soft tofu to the mixture. Using nuts with a higher fat content, like cashews, is another way to a make a richer pesto without dairy.

When fresh basil isn't in season, seize the opportunity to experiment with other greens, like spinach or arugula. Try classic ethnic combinations like cilantro, pumpkin seeds, lime juice and cotija for Mexican pesto; or mint, pistachios and feta for a Middle Eastern one. A pesto of walnuts, sage and parsley complements poultry. And we've even whirled up pesto with wild ramps, instead of the garlic, and springtime's stinging nettles.

Beyond the basic herb-nut-oil-garlic format, add more layers of flavor to pestos with citrus zest, pitted green olives, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted red peppers.

Send questions to "Since You Asked, A la carte" Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com.