Pesto is an herb sauce of Italian origin named for its traditional method of preparation, crushing all the ingredients together in a stone mortar with a wooden pestle. As herbs from exotic lands arrived at Italy’s seaports during Europe’s early years of seafaring exploration, preserving them in oil was conceived. The most traditional of the herbs used is basil from India, but the technique has been adapted with one of the world’s most common herbs to make parsley pesto.
Basic pesto is very easy to make. The ingredients include: a good quantity of any leafy herb, garlic, lemon juice and zest, salt and pepper. An additional traditional ingredient is dry-roasted pine nuts; other less expensive nuts such as cashew or walnut can be substituted. Culinary purists still pound these ingredients in a mortar made of marble, but most people combine everything into a coarse paste with an electric blender or food processor. The mixture is finished into a creamy sauce with the slow incorporation of an oil, such as traditional extra virgin olive oil.
The traditional recipe also adds Italian parmigiano-reggiano; but any finely grated hard cheese, such as asiago or pecorino, will work well. Cheese is, in fact, optional. Some herbs, such as coriander, do not pair well with dairy. If preparing a batch of pesto to be frozen into portions, adding cheese is not recommended. Grated cheese can always be added just before serving.
To prepare parsley pesto, and other types of pesto as well, there are several points to consider. First, only fresh parsley leaves, washed and spun or patted dry, should be used. Raw garlic and salt is added to taste; careful moderation with ground black pepper is advised. Strong-flavored oils like olive oil or clarified butter may be preferred over neutral ones such as canola oil. To preserve the bright green color of the finished parsley pesto, it can be stored in a container topped with a thin, protective layer of the same oil to keep air out.
Pesto can be used as a condiment, such as when topping a bruschetta or toast point. With additional moisture, such as chicken stock or more olive oil, it is a versatile sauce. True to its Italian origin, pesto’s most common use is as a pasta sauce. Less common, more creative uses include green pesto as a pizza sauce.
Parsley pesto is an especially good condiment for broiled or grilled chicken or fish, and a tasty sauce for mushrooms cooked in butter. It is also popular for flavoring potatoes and green beans. Many Mediterranean soups such as minestrone are either finished or garnished with a dollop of parsley pesto.
Pesto has become a popular kitchen staple around the world. It is available in many grocery stores in either green or red varieties, the latter made with either roasted tomato or red bell pepper. Once the basic method is learned with parsley, a spicy and tangy Thai pesto with cilantro and mint leaves is similarly easy to make at home.