Pesto Perfection–A Magical Basic Pesto Recipe with Tips to Ensure Success

In my youth, my mom never cooked with pesto, so it was totally unfamiliar to me. In my twenties, I watched my hippie-like roommate scooping green gunk out of a jar and mixing it with her pasta. “Ugh,” I thought. I didn’t know what she was eating, but it didn’t look appealing at all. When I asked about it, she told me it was pesto. Well, it wasn’t something I had an urge to try.

Pesto remained nonexistent in my life until I married a few years ago, a couple decades after my first observation about the green stuff. My hubby purchased a jar of Classico brand pesto on one of our grocery trips and ended up slathering it all over a piece of fish prior to baking; we LOVED it. We’ve since baked wahoo, yellowtail, and albacore with it.

In my pursuit to make as much homemade, fresh food as possible, I’ve attempted pesto several times. Hubby always said the jarred stuff was better. I persevered, though, determined to make pesto from scratch that surpassed the storebought stuff.

And now I’ve hit the jackpot! Woo hoo!!

I found the Cave Woman Cafe post about pesto, aptly titled “Pesto Magic.” Indeed, her method has transformed my creations into something magical, something I could eat an entire jar of, spoonful by spoonful. Yep, it’s that good.

So, for those not in the know, what is pesto? It’s an Italian sauce traditionally made with crushed garlic, basil, pine nuts, olive oil, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The name originated from the Italian word pestare, which means to pound, to crush. You see, the original method of making pesto involved crushing the ingredients using a mortar and pestle. Nowadays, the food processor makes quick and easy work of mixing up a batch of this green sauce.

Pesto, however, involves many variations. Just swap the basil for another herb…or swap the pine nuts for another nut…or try out different cheeses. Experiment to your heart’s content. Since my basil is overflowing in the garden, I’ve only tried the basil pesto. And since I can purchase the outrageously expensive pine nuts in small quantities from the bulk bins at Sprouts or Whole Foods, the cost doesn’t break my bank. I love the lightness of the pine nuts.

Some day, I will test out other herbs and nuts, spreading my wings beyond basil and pine nuts. For now, I’m hooked on basil and pine nut pesto.

Let me now present to you the simple and brief list of magical secrets I learned from Cave Woman Cafe that transformed my pesto success:

Pesto Magic Secrets

  1. Use a light olive oil rather than extra virgin olive oil. When mixed in the food processor, the bitter-tasting polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil come out in full force, leaving a bitter aftertaste in the pesto. This ingredient created the turning point in my pesto journey!
  2. Coarsely chop everything before processing.
  3. If using basil, add equal parts parsley and basil to the pesto. This will keep the sauce bright green as it ages. Otherwise, the pesto turns an unappealing army-green color. I’ve read, too, that blanching basil in lightly salted water for 10-15 seconds followed by dunking it in ice water keeps the pesto a vibrant green.
  4. Lightly toast the nuts helps to maximize flavor. Either toast in a pan on the stovetop or roast in the oven for a few minutes at 350 degrees F. With either method, keep an eye on the nuts so they don’t burn. (However, I read an article in the New York Times about a small company called Buddhapesto that has had great success in selling homemade pesto. The owner uses raw pine nuts, no toasting, to allow its flavor to shine.)

Pesto Uses

Lastly, I’ve thought about various uses for pesto, especially since I intend to make and freeze batches and batches of it to use up the various herbs voraciously sprouting in my garden:

  • mix it with pasta
  • slather it on fish before baking
  • spread it on a sandwich (especially yummy with panini)
  • stir some into minestrone or other soups
  • smear it all over an omelet
  • daub it on scallops
  • dip apple slices into it
  • layer it with cheese on bread
  • rub it on grilled chicken or turkey
  • mingle it into ricotta when you make lasagna(or try the recipe at Italian Dish)
  • use it in pasta salad
  • add it in salad dressing
  • toss it with veggies or potatoes
  • dunk baked potato wedges into it
  • coat pizza dough with it instead of tomato sauce, then add cheese and chicken
  • combine it with tuna for tuna fish sandwiches

Basic Pesto Recipe

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  • 1 cup of lightly toasted nuts, coarsely chopped (pine nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds,  macadamia nuts, pumpkin seeds, etc.)
  • 2 cups of leafy, packed fresh herbs or greens, coarsely chopped (basil, parsley, cilantro, sage, rosemary, spinach, arugula, mint, chives, scallions, garlic scapes, etc.)
  • 2-5 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly minced
  • 1-2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup of grated dry aged cheese (parmesan, parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino romano, asagio)
  • 1/2 – 1 cup light olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt or more to taste (I prefer using Himalayan Pink Salt, which I bought at Sprouts)


  1. In your food processor or blender, frothify the herbs, garlic, and lemon juice.
  2. Add the nuts and keep the contraption mixing as you toss in the cheese.
  3. With the machine still humming away, slowly add the olive oil and process until the desired consistency is achieved.
  4. Sprinkle in the salt; mix. Taste and add more salt if needed.
  5. Store in the fridge in an airtight container for up to a week. Can also be frozen for several months (try freezing in ice cube trays, then storing cubes in a freezer bag).

SOURCES: adapted from Cave Woman Cafe (she offers several variations on her  post); see The Kitchn for another pesto recipe

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