Infinitely varied and infinitely delicious, Italy’s classic pestos pay tribute to that magical Italian flair of transforming ordinary ingredients into spectacular culinary creations.
Red or green, creamy or sharp, modern or traditional, there is an almost inexhaustible array of pestos inspired from the different sun-kissed regions of Italy. The one thing that they have in common? They all, without exception, taste great.
The word pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare, which means to step on or to pound. Traditionally handmade using a mortar stone and wooden pestle, a pesto is merely an emulsified paste created by pounding a combination of herbs, nuts, cheese and olive oil together. Simple — but the results are spectacular. And the uses, infinite.
Most commonly served tossed with fresh pasta, pestos also go wonderfully with grilled fish or chicken or dolloped onto a thick juicy steak. They can be that secret ingredient that adds extra oomph to a focaccia sandwich or elevates a simple bowl of soup. Spread on crackers and served with grapes and cheese, they make great party snacks too.
Here we break down the most four common types of pestos:
Made from young basil leaves, garlic, coarse sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, toasted pine nuts, and grated parmigiano reggiano cheese, this luscious green paste is what usually comes to mind when one thinks of a pesto. In some variations, other types of grated cheese such as pecorino are included.
Originating from Sicily, this summery red version of a pesto is similar to its green-hued cousin but includes sun-dried tomatoes and peppers, and swaps pine nuts for almonds; ingredients that give it its signature sweetness and heat.
Also from southern Italy, Pesto Calabrese seems to be the most varied of all pestos and might include one or more of the following ingredients: sautéed eggplant, grilled bell peppers, black pepper, onions and chilli. It also uses ricotta cheese, which adds a signature creaminess to the spice imparted by the black pepper, bell peppers and chilli.
Bursting with the flavours of lemon, fresh herbs, anchovies, capers and garlic, Italy’s other famous green sauce is the only one not served with pasta. Instead, it’s delicious with all kinds of grilled, pan-seared or roasted meats, fish and vegetables.
But pesto is constantly evolving and other modern reinterpretations of these classic pastes include rocket (as an addition or alternative to basil), black olives, lemon peel, coriander or mint, and even miso paste! Pesto is what you want it to be — and there are no wrongs, only the unquestionable rightness of sinking your spoon into a jar of gorgeous red or green speckled paste and tasting it.
MAKE YOUR OWN: PESTO CALABRESE
This summery southern Italian-style pesto is flavoured with ricotta, eggplant and sweet red peppers.
1 small eggplant
2 tsp salt
1⁄4 cup olive oil
1⁄2 small yellow onion (minced)
1 red bell pepper (minced)
1 red chilli (optional, minced)
2 plum tomatoes (cored and minced)
1⁄2 cup ricotta cheese
1⁄3 cup young basil leaves (packed tightly)
Black pepper and more salt to taste
1. Peel and cut the eggplant into small cubes. Place into a bowl, toss with 2 tsp of salt and set aside for 20 min. You will notice that the eggplant will start to give out some of its liquid. Spread out the eggplant cubes on paper towels and allow to dry.
2. Heat oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the red pepper, chilli and onion. Cook, stirring often, until soft and lightly caramelised.
3. Add the eggplant and cook until soft (approx. 8 min). Add tomatoes and cook for another 5 min.
4. Transfer to a food processor and add the ricotta and basil. Puree until smooth (or slightly chunky if you prefer it). Season to taste.
5. Serve tossed with linguini or spaghetti or as a bruschetta topping.
Note: You can keep this pesto in the fridge for up to five days. Simply put it in a sealed container and top up with a little olive oil to cover the surface.
A good pesto depends on the quality of your ingredients. The better the olive oil you use and the fresher your basil, the better!