The Home Cook: Pesto My Way

Our executive food editor rediscovers the joys of fresh pesto and shares how she makes it her own.
pesto on pasta

America’s love affair with Italian food bypassed my childhood kitchen. My mother was a staunch New Englander, and in her world Fannie Farmer ruled. Spaghetti and meatballs were merely lyrics to a song; the dish never showed up on the dinner table. The only noodles we knew were bound in canned-soup casseroles. Pasta? Never heard the word until after college.

Not so for my kids. They learned their first Italian word, pasta, soon after those universal words, mama and dada, and for good reason: I’ve served up nearly every shape of pasta with nearly every imaginable sauce around since before they toddled (they’re now teenagers). Through it all, though, pasta with pesto has been the enduring favorite.

If tuna noodle casserole was my mother’s easy fallback, pasta with pesto has been mine, particularly in late summer, when the farmers market is full of gloriously bushy bunches of basil. A hoarder by nature, I become a machine on September Saturdays, grinding basil into pesto, packing it in containers, and freezing it. My mind is focused on the future, stocking up for those last-minute, home-late-from-work dinners. The problem is that I’ve forgotten to indulge in the pleasures of the moment, that summertime rush of herbs and garlic.

This September I slowed down. I rediscovered how much better freshly made pesto really is. So superior, in fact, that I don’t think I’m going back to frozen. When you use it right away, or at least within a couple days, it is so much creamier and the flavor vibrates with the intensity of basil’s anise-y punch. Thinking back on all that thawed frozen pesto I’ve consumed I faced a sad truth: It never did seem to deliver what I was really in the mood for in the middle of winter. It filled the stomach but didn’t satisfy the soul. The Genoese, who created this marvelous sauce, would agree.

The Italians classically toss pesto with linguine along with some green beans and potatoes, but like most Americans, I’ve bastardized the dish: I treat it as a vegetable-delivery system, a healthy one-bowl dinner that I can plunk on the table quickly. To beans and potatoes I usually add thin slices of zucchini, corn fresh off the cob, whatever I can find in the fridge. Lately, I’ve been pan-roasting cherry tomatoes until they weep their juice and then serving that on the side. For the pesto mixture itself, I’ve long since switched from pine nuts to raw green pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds (those are what I tend to have around for healthy snacking), and I like to incorporate some flat-leaf parsley in with the basil—it keeps the pesto a vibrant green despite basil’s tendency to go dark.

To top it all off I put out another side bowl of toasted bread crumbs. Not just the store-bought kind, mind you; I’m talking homemade crumbs, preferably from a good-quality whole wheat loaf and seasoned with olive oil and salt. It’s not quite Italian anymore, but it works. It’s pasta with pesto my way.

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