If you’re looking for a great way to use your garden herbs, try making fresh herb pesto. This simple green sauce comes together in minutes, and makes a delicious topping for pasta, potatoes, sandwiches, or any type of burger. Later in summer you can make basil pesto, but until then you can try cilantro-based mojo sauce, or perhaps a zippy mint pesto to enjoy with bread and cheese. When it comes to herb pesto, the possibilities are endless.
Derived from the Italian pestare, meaning “to pound,” the first pestos from Liguria were made by crushing garlic, pine nuts, and hard cheese with enough olive oil to form a paste. When basil arrived in Italy from India in the mid-1800s, basil pesto took the old dish to new levels. Today, adventurous cooks are pushing new trends by making pesto with dill, mint, sage, and other garden herbs.
How to Make Herb Pesto
Whether you call it pesto or green sauce, herb pesto begins with a quantity of well-washed herb leaves, picked from their stems. You can mix different herbs together to create unique batches, and parsley often is used to fill in when a feature herb is in short supply.
Instead of pounding, most of us use a food processor to make pesto. I place all the ingredients in the bowl, pulse a few times, stir down the sides, and then pulse three or four times more. Here are the basic ingredients for any herb pesto:
- 2 cups clean herb leaves, loosely packed
- 2/3 cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 large clove garlic
- ½ cup nuts (pine nuts, walnuts, pecans, or pistachios)
Herb pesto freezes well in silicone muffin pans or ice cube trays, or you can drop spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper or parchment, freeze, and then pack the pesto cookies into freezer-safe containers. Because they contain oils, pesto is not safe for water bath canning.
Cilantro Pesto (Mojo Sauce)
My first green sauce of the season is mojo sauce made with cilantro that survived winter outdoors. You can be endlessly creative starting with a simple green mojo sauce of cilantro, olive oil, garlic, salt, and lemon juice. Some cooks use orange juice to thin their mojo sauce, and others include hot peppers.
Mojo sauce makes a great condiment for any protein, or you can spread it on bread or toss it with rice noodles and peanuts for a quick lunch.
Cilantro quickly loses its color and flavor when dried, so frozen mojo sauce is the best way to preserve a bumper crop. At my house, cubes of frozen cilantro pesto also become the secret ingredient that adds depth to many winter soups.
Mint pesto is now trending among internet foodies, especially mint pesto baked eggs. Bowtie pasta with mint and pea pesto is also in vogue, and this summer it’s hip to slather pineapple with mint pesto before grilling it. I hold back the garlic in mint pesto destined for the freezer, because I might want to pair it with berries or use it with fruit and yogurt.
Dill pesto usually includes parsley and sometimes mint, and benefits from an extra bit of lemon juice to sharpen its flavor. Roasted walnuts are the perfect addition, and dill pesto is so delicate that it can do without cheese. Try it on any roasted vegetable, pasta, or bread. Freeze extra and use it in winter as a surprise treat with potatoes.
Parsley Pesto and Basil Pesto
Plain parsley pesto is good, but even better if you add a few sprigs of sage, marjoram, or oregano from your garden. But because parsley and most other Mediterranean herbs are easy to dry, I postpone large-scale pesto making until the basil is ready. Basil darkens and loses its flavor when dried, so basil pesto is the best way to preserve it.
A final note about color. Lemon juice adds flavor and helps preserve the vibrant green color of pesto, but using purple basil leaves, or stems from red-stemmed mints, will impart a muddy brown hue to your pesto. Just so you know.