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The term pesto likely has its origins from from two Italian words. One is the Italian verb pestare which means "to pound or crush" as one does with the garlic and pine nuts. Pestos were traditionally made in a mortar and pestle, the pestle being the heavy tool used for grinding and crushing.
Over the course of the last few decades the term pesto has come to refer to many different recipes, but they all have a basic set of ingredients and techniques. The classic pesto is customarily made with crushed pine nuts, garlic, basil, olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano. It seems so simple, but these five ingredients go so well together. You can use a mortar and pestle but a blender, food processor or even a mini-chopper is much easier.
If you want to use a mortar and pestle, start with the pine nuts and garlic. Crush them using a circular motion with the pestle against the bottom of the mortar until they are a smooth, creamy paste. Add the basil leaves and grind until smooth. Mix in grated parmesan, adding just enough olive oil to blend the cheese into the sauce. When using a blender it's best to use the same method: nuts and garlic first, then herbs, followed by the cheese and oil.
There are dozens of pesto variations. In France the combination of basil, parsley, garlic and cheese is known as pistou and is great as a spread but is also a traditional sauce added to soups. As with pistou, the term pesto has come to mean many things across the world.
Using the basic form of nuts or seeds and garlic, herbs, cheese and oil, one could conceivably make almost any new flavor or recipe. I have seen pesto recipes using sunflower seeds, cashews, or almonds. Likewise, instead of basil you could use dill, parsley or almost any herb you wish. Spinach, watercress or arugula works well also. There's wide range of cheeses you could use, but it is best to choose an aged cheese that's not only drier but also has a richer, more concentrated flavor. Certainly one could use any number of oils and even olive oils from different locations or of different levels of quality will bring a different flavor to your pesto.
Red pestos are very traditional and can be made with both sun dried tomatoes and red peppers. I particularly like red pestos and the rule of thumb is to use about half as much herb and replace with the tomatoes or peppers for a 50/50 split.
Be cautious when using pestos in your recipes. Because the mix is of quite strong flavors - garlic, basil, parmesan - it's easy to overdo it and ruin your dish.
Red Pepper Pesto
Sun Dried Tomato Pesto
Pizza with Dill Pesto and Potato
Shrimp with Cilantro Pesto
Sun Dried Tomato Pesto Risotto