Universal Pesto Recipe

It's time you know the truth about pesto. First, you need to know that the word pesto comes from the Genoese verb pestâ (and in Italian pestare), which means to pound or to crush - referring to the traditional method of crushing the ingredients with a mortar and pestle. So while pesto has become synonymous with fresh basil and pine nuts ground together with oil, garlic, and grated parmesan... really pesto is a general term for anything made by pounding.

And here's the truth: Pesto need not be limited to basil and pine nuts! Don't get me wrong - that's a fabulous, time-tested flavor combo - but I think we ought to cook outside the box and embrace the wide world of pesto possibilities. If you don't have fresh basil on hand, just about any leafy herb or tender green will do the trick, such as arugula, kale, and radish tops. BONUS: Because these less traditional greens don't oxidize as quickly as basil, your arugula/kale/radish top pesto won't turn brown nearly as quickly. And let's talk about pine nuts. Let's just say that I haven't bought pine nuts in over two years (and I make a lot of pesto)! Instead I use toasted walnuts, which are deliciously nutty, way less expensive than pine nuts, and they are soft enough to blend smoothly with the other pesto ingredients. If you're cooking for someone with a tree nut allergy, just use pumpkin seeds. Don't have Parmigiano-Reggiano? Don't panic. Just about any hard, salty cheese will do. See what I mean? This whole pesto-without-basil-and-pine-nuts thing is quite liberating. 

To make a flawless pesto every time, just follow my Universal Pesto recipe below, which gives handy guidelines for the (approximate) amount of greens, nuts, olive oil, cheese, and garlic to use. Feel free to go traditional and make pesto in a mortar and pestle... but I'll be honest that I just use my 4-cup food processor and it works like a charm.  





  • 1⁄2 cup toasted nuts or seeds
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups packed herbs and/or greens
  • 1⁄2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Instructions:
    1. Pulse nuts or seeds in a food processor until they're completely broken down. Add garlic and olive oil and pulse until garlic is finely chopped.
    2. Add the herbs/greens, grated cheese, and lemon juice and process until smooth in your food processor. Stop and scrape down the sides and process again until well blended.
    3. Taste and add salt if needed (the parmesan is naturally quite salty, so you often won't need to add much extra salt).
    4. To store in the fridge, put pesto in a container and top with a layer of olive oil. To store in the freezer, scoop the pesto into an ice cube tray and freeze into cubes.