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Making the classic Ligurian pesto of basil, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, garlic and olive oil, is really just a start. Play with the formula to create your own pesto version for tossing with pasta or spooning over just about anything from the grill.

Here are a few ideas.

  • Vary the herbs. Tender leaves, like parsley, oregano and mint also work well. Or skip the herbs and try baby kale, baby spinach or arugula.
  • Switch up the nuts. Try almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts, which make a heartier pesto. Or add pistachios or Brazil nuts, which both have a natural buttery flavor that’s delicious in a sauce.
  • Add vegetables. For an especially chunky pesto, add your farmers’ market finds, from asparagus to red peppers to tomatoes.
  • Mix and match. After you get comfortable with varying the formula, you can come up with creative combos, like oregano-pistachio or olive-hazelnut.

Carrot Top Pesto

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A new cookbook, Root to Stalk Cooking by Tara Duggan, inspired me to think about how I could use the carrot tops that came with my CSA share. The spread I created is delicious over grilled chicken breasts and grilled fish fillets.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup packed carrot leaves (washed well and stems removed)
  • 6 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large garlic clove
  • 1/4 teaspoon each fine sea salt and black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons roasted pistachio nuts (see below)
  • 1/2 of a lemon, squeezed

Directions

If you did not purchase roasted nuts then spread the nuts in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Place in a preheated 350-degree F oven and toast the nuts until lightly browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Alternatively, nuts can be browned in a microwave. Spread in a single layer on a microwave-safe plate and microwave on high power, stopping to stir once or twice, until lightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes.

To Make the Pesto:
In a food processor, combine the carrot leaves, oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Process until finely minced. Add the nuts and pulse until finely chopped. Add the lemon juice and pulse just until combined. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Traditional Handmade Basil Pesto

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Makes about 1 1/2 cups

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup pine nuts (6 ounces)
  • 5 cups basil leaves, chilled and very dry
  • 6 small garlic cloves, quartered
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for sealing
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Toast the nuts on a baking sheet for about 4 minutes, or until lightly browned. Coarsely chop the basil leaves.

In a large mortar, combine the basil and garlic and pound to a coarse paste. Add the nuts and pound until a smooth paste forms. Stir in the Parmesan, then 3/4 cup of the olive oil.

Transfer the pesto to a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Smooth the surface and pour a little olive oil on top to seal.

Cavatappi with Basil Pesto and Eggplant 

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Modern method for making pesto.

4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound cavatappi pasta or short pasta of choice
  • 7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 small eggplant, diced in small cubes
  • 1 bunch fresh basil chopped
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts toasted
  • 1 lemon juiced
  • 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shredded
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Mix eggplant with 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Place on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for about 10 minutes or until light, golden brown. Remove from the oven.

Combine basil, pine nuts, salt and pepper in a blender, pulse for 5 seconds. With processor running add 6 tablespoons of olive oil and puree. Remove the pesto from the blender and transfer to a large pasta serving bowl.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, season with salt. Cook pasta 1 minute less than packaged directions. Drain pasta and place in the bowl with the pesto.

Add lemon juice and eggplant and toss to combine. Top with shredded Parmigiano cheese before serving.

Spinach Pesto

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This pesto does incredible things for grilled chicken.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups lightly packed baby spinach leaves (about 2 ounces)
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Combine the spinach, pine nuts, lemon juice and lemon peel in a processor. Lightly pulse.

With the machine running, gradually add the oil, blending until the mixture is creamy. Add salt and pulse. Stir in the Parmesan. Season the pesto with salt and pepper to taste.

Olive-Mint Pesto

Olive-Mint Pesto

Stir this pesto into mixed ground meats to make meatloaf, serve it on bruschetta with shaved Parmesan cheese, stir it into soups or whisk it into vinaigrettes.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons tightly packed mint leaves
  • 2 tablespoons small capers, drained
  • 1 large garlic clove, smashed
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup pitted mixed olives, such as Kalamata and Cerignola
  • Freshly ground pepper

Directions

In a food processor, pulse the mint with the capers, garlic, lemon zest and crushed red pepper. With the machine on, add the olive oil in a thin stream. Add the olives and pulse until coarsely chopped. Season the pesto with pepper.

Olive-Mint Pesto Meatballs

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Ingredients

  • 3 slices good quality packaged white bread, crusts removed, bread torn
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1/3 cup Olive-Mint Pesto, recipe above
  • 1 scallion, thinly sliced
  • 1 large egg
  • 3/4 pound ground turkey
  • 3/4 pound ground beef (or use all turkey)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Directions

In a large bowl, soak the bread in the milk for 1 minute, mashing it. Using your hand, press out the milk and drain it off.

Add 1/3 cup of the olive-mint pesto, the scallion and the egg to the soaked bread and mash to a paste. Add the ground turkey and beef and season with 1 1/2 teaspoons of kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Mix until well blended.

Line a baking sheet with plastic wrap. Using lightly moistened hands, roll the meat mixture into twenty-four 1 1/2-inch balls and transfer to the baking sheet.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the meatballs in a single layer and cook over moderately high heat, turning occasionally, until browned all over and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Serve over pasta, if desired.

Mixed-Herb Pesto

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Whisk the pesto with a little vinegar to create a delicious herb dressing for a salad, sliced tomatoes or grilled fish.

Makes 2 ½ cups

Ingredients

  • 1 large garlic cloves
  • 4 lightly packed cups basil leaves
  • 2 lightly packed cups flat-leaf Italian parsley leaves
  • 1/2 cup lightly packed mint leaves
  • 1/2 cup roasted nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, pine nuts or pistachios
  • 1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, grated (1/2 cup)
  • Salt

Directions

In a food processor, chop the garlic. Add the basil, parsley and mint and pulse until chopped. Add the nuts and oil and pulse until a smooth paste forms. Add the cheese and pulse until incorporated. Season with salt to taste.

Spoon the pesto into 1/2-pint freezer containers. Smooth the surface and pour a little olive oil on top to seal. Freeze for up to 6 months.

Walnut Pesto

Walnut Pesto

Mix this pesto with cooked tortellini or roasted vegetables, spread it on thickly sliced tomatoes and broil, or stuff it under the skin of a chicken  before roasting.

Makes about 1 1/4 cups.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups walnut halves (6 ounces)
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • Crushed red pepper
  • Kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup minced flat-leaf Italian parsley
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 12 minutes, or until golden. Cool the walnuts and finely chop.

In a processor, combine the garlic with a pinch each of crushed red pepper and salt. Process until a paste forms.

Add the walnuts, parsley and slowly add the olive oil until blended. Stir in the Parmesan cheese and season with additional salt, if needed.

Sun-Dried-Tomato Pesto

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Use this pesto on top of grilled chicken, lamb or vegetables; as a sandwich spread; or mixed with cream cheese on a bagel. It is quite delicious on whole wheat spaghetti, also.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup pine nuts or
  • 15 drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

Directions

In a small frying pan, toast the pine nuts over moderately low heat, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 5 minutes; remove from the pan. Or toast the pine nuts in a 350°F oven for 5 to 10 minutes.

In a blender or food processor, put the pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, oil, water, salt and pepper. Puree until smooth.

6. Fusilli with Spinach and Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

To Make a Pasta Salad:

Cook 1 lb fusilli pasta according to directions. Drain.
Toss the pasta with a 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, the sun-dried tomato pesto, 1/2 cup of roughly chopped pitted black olives, 2 cups baby spinach leaves, 1 cup halved cherry tomatoes and 1/4 cup grated Parmesan. Serve at room temperature.

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