All the Ways to Pesto

July 17, 2019 Updated: July 17, 2019

In time for summer, when all the green, herby things are flourishing in the sun—and threatening to overtake gardens—comes a new cookbook dedicated to all things pesto. 

“Pesto: The Modern Mother Sauce,” is by Leslie Lennox, co-creator with her husband of Atlanta-based pesto company “Hope Gardens.” They got their start at the farmers market, selling pesto made from basil grown in their backyard greenhouse, before making their way into Whole Foods Market and the kitchens and hearts of chefs such as acclaimed James Beard Award-winner Linton Hopkins. 

The traditional basil pesto we best know and love originates from pesto alla Genovese. The emerald sauce was born in the port city of Genoa in Liguria, Italy, and is defined by a strict code of local ingredients: Genovese basil, garlic, creamy Italian pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo, salt, and good extra-virgin olive oil. 

What Lennox calls the “Hope’s Garden method” gives pesto a looser definition. It leans closer to the earlier meaning of the word, which derives from the Italian verb “pestare,” meaning “to pound” or “to crush,” and technically refers to anything prepared in such a way, traditionally with a mortar and pestle. 

Lennox approaches pesto as “more of an outline than a prescription,” she writes, open to endless customization by individual cooks. You can’t go wrong with a classic basil pesto—which was Hope’s Garden’s original product and remains a best-seller—but the options don’t stop there. How about swapping the basil for mint or spinach, or in the dead of winter, a few handfuls of kale? 

The book lays out a basic outline of six core components, three of which are optional: four cups of “plants,” 1/2 cup of cheese (optional), 1/2 cup of oil, 1/3 cup of nuts or seeds (optional), two or more garlic cloves (optional), and 1/4 teaspoon each of additional seasonings and something acidic. Within that framework, Lennox encourages home cooks to also mix and match ingredients as they need or please, based on seasonality and availability, cravings, and dietary needs.

Arugula overflowing at the market? Base your pesto around that. A handful of mint languishing in the back of your fridge? Toss it in, too, along with the last of those pistachios in your pantry. Allergic to nuts? Try sunflower seeds instead. Not a fan of garlic? Use less, or nix it altogether. 

Regardless of the combination, the key, Lennox advises, is to use the best quality ingredients possible. The same goes for any dish, but especially for a simple, uncooked sauce like pesto, where the individual ingredients can really shine. 

Then, once you’ve made your pesto, “hundreds of possibilities are within your reach, regardless of your skill level as a cook,” Lennox writes. Pesto is as adaptable in its uses as in its creation: try it as the base of a vinaigrette or dressing, mixed into an aioli for a dip or sandwich spread, dolloped on top of roasted veggies or proteins, or, of course, as a simple, vibrant sauce for pasta. Lennox’s book offers plenty of inspiration, with recipes from bubbling hot, pesto-swirled shakshuka to gazpacho shooters chilled with frozen pesto cubes.

So home cooks can take comfort in this: There’s no wrong way to pesto.

RECIPE: Classic Basil Pesto

RECIPE: Compound Pesto Butter

RECIPE: Leaning Eggplant Towers

Pesto cookbook cover
“Pesto: The Modern Mother Sauce” by Leslie Lennox (Agate Surrey, $26).
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