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variations of pesto?

Having just gone through the pistou v. pesto debate -- I had a grilled fish with pesto today in a restaurant in Chalon-sur-Saone and the pesto was fabulous. It was quite different from what I make - I tasted less garlic. It seemed like the pure essence of basil and olive oil. I make the standard garlic, pine nuts, basil and olive oil. I'm wondering if there is a variation with no garlic? no pine nuts? I'm sure there are many variations and I would like to try a few more when I get home to basil country. Any suggestions or ideas greatly appreciated.

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    1. Nut pestos; especially walnut pesto which I have served both savory or sweet.
      Sage pesto was a huge surprise and wonderful rubbed on pork tenderloin.
      Apple pesto! Talk about a head turner..the sweetness really adds something

      1. Greens such as arugula or spinach
        Fresh mint makes a wonderful pesto
        Toasted walnuts, pecans, almonds instead of pine nuts
        Red pesto with sundried tomatoes
        Romano or Asiago

        1 Reply
        1. re: chefathome

          i was going to suggest ALL these variations! beat me to it! haha

        2. I have made pesto with coriander (cilantro) subsituted for basil, and with other nuts substituted for pine nuts - hazelnuts are nice.

          5 Replies
          1. re: alexthepink

            We often use a combination of spinach and basil...This produces a more subdued but still delicious flavor and "stretches" the pesto so you get a better yield if you're serving a lot of guests. Interesting that you mention the absent garlic in your recent pesto. I often think folks overdo the garlic in pesto and mask the herb (whatever you choose), which is really the key ingredient, IMHO.

            1. re: curej

              i most often leave out the garlic. raw garlic is usually just too acrid for me, even in small amounts.

              1. re: hotoynoodle

                Have you ever tried sub'ing fresh minced shallots for the raw garlic? I've also tried the whites of fresh scallions and diced leeks instead of the garlic.

                1. re: HillJ

                  not so crazy about raw anything from the lily family, honestly. i'm happy with basil, loads of lemon and either almonds or pine nuts. sometimes cheese, not always.

                  i do make some of the other variations on already posted here and am quite keen on mint and cilantro version. this stuff also freezes very well, so i portion out the batch and keep it in a ziploc all winter!

                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                    Ah, gotcha! Well, basil-loads of lemon-with or without nuts and most certainly cheese sounds yummy to me! Especially on thin whole wheat spaghetti.

          2. There are several sources of variations:

            - other regions of Italy (and France). The best known pesto is a specialty of Genoa. I've seen references to a Sicilian version that is quite different.

            - '70s variations, when the 'back to earth' people sought to use less expensive ingredients, such as walnuts and sunflower seeds, and other greens like cilantro

            - modern innovations by chefs trying to add novelty to their dishes.

            1. I make a pesto with cilantro, garlic, shallots, lime juice, olive oil and toasted pecans.

              1. I have never made it but I've seen a bunch of recipes for broccoli pesto with various ingredients. This one has garlic, but no nuts.


                1. I made a orange-mint-parsley pesto to go with my leg of lamb last night -- it was great!

                  1. Once basil season is over, I stick with parsley for my pesto. Sometimes there's no garlic, sometimes walnuts or pecans--especially now that Costco stopped carrying pine nuts because the cost had gone up so much. The main thing I've learned is to thin the pesto with pasta water before tossing with the pasta. It makes for a lighter coating that doesn't clump.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: escondido123

                      Well, the pine nut problem is that they've been largely sourced from China for the past couple of decades. Search "pine nut mouth" for an explanation of why smart retailers are no longer accepting them from China.

                    2. I use sunflower seeds in pesto rather than pine nuts. It's a less expensive option and adds makes the flavor nuttier. I buy them raw and toast them right before making the pesto.

                      1. all of my favorites have pretty much been covered, except for one: pumpkin seed!

                        toast the seeds, and combine with cilantro, parsley, lemon, Cotija cheese, oil & garlic, OR with basil, parsley, lemon, garlic, oil & Parm.

                        oh, and for those who don't like raw garlic (or shallots), use roasted garlic.

                        1. I do a Mushroom walnut... i cook finely diced wild mushrooms and shallots with a bit of garlic (or leave it raw), then blend with walnuts, parsley and olive oil.

                          i also like to grill or fire roast scallions and cilantro, then puree with either macadamia nuts or pumpkin seeds, with or without cheese.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Emme

                            Thanks for all these great ideas. I have plentiful basil and I want to try to replicate what I had in France, It really tasted like the essence of basil. I wonder if it was just that the garlic was not there and did not distract from the flavor. I will report back after I experiment a bit. I also want to play around with cilantro pesto a bit as it is also plentiful.

                            1. re: Mariana in Baja

                              French/Provencal pestos are very light on the garlic -- as is a lot of French food, despite the stereotypes.

                          2. I have come to love a kale version of pesto that is nutless and extremely delicious and healthy. Remove the stem from a bunch of kale, roughly tear or chop and boil the kale for 10 minutes. Shock with cold water (a rinse is ok), then squeeze fairly dry. Process it with fresh garlic, salt to taste and enough good olive oil to get to a pasty consistency. Spread on table water crackers or toasted baguette slices lightly brushed with butter. It's very simply but crazy good.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: rcallner

                              I do something similar with almost any type of greens- kale, mustard, or whatever. Sometimes with nuts sometimes without. I never tried boiling beyond a few minutes but it might be better than what I do. It's really, really good on fresh Italian bread or toast.

                              I'd thought about posting that but figured folks would think I was weird or just cheap. Thanks rcallner!


                            2. Sorry to jump into this conversation very late, but this past summer I ended up a large amount of freshly picked lemon balm (similar to mint) and ended up making it into a pesto in a few ways. It worked terrifically with both pine nuts and hazelnuts, and was a bit gentler than most mint leaves, with a subtle lemony freshness to it.

                              There's also a great video on Chow about "The Perfect" pesto:

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: lipoff

                                My problem with lemon balm in food is that it instantly turns it into Murphy's Oil Soap (for which it is a star fragrance, as it were).

                              2. I just tried something interesting tonight with my leftovers in the fridge. Mashed Pestatoes. I made up some mashed taters and mixed with the pesto and wallah! A new dish to enjoy.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: bravoshark44

                                  it's also terrific on oven-roasted potatoes, and it makes a great base for a vinegary potato salad dressing.

                                  1. Pesto using peas and mint is refreshing. Great slathered on grilled ciabatta bread topped with Parm shavings, drizzled with a bit of fruity olive oil.

                                    1. This summer I tried a Romaine Pesto (much lighter then usual) recipe from the Smitten Kitchen blog which used a Gourmet recipe. It was part of an egg stuffed tomato recipe but would also go well with fish. See http://smittenkitchen.com/2006/09/lik... recommend you thoroughly dry the romaine before processing.

                                      Another light variation is a Jacques Pepin recipe (from his "Cooking with Claudine" book) where he tops scallops steamed on a bed of spinach with a pesto like sauce of walnut, lemon juice & rind, olive oil, salt & pepper. A simple, quick recipe in which you get great results with minimal effort.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: skibumwannabe

                                        i do like the mild variation with Romaine in the recipe from Gourmet...but nothing about that Jacques Pepin walnut sauce says "pesto" to me.

                                        1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                          You're right under a strict definition of "pesto" as blended sauce of chopped herb (or something green or vegetable-like as discussed), nut, allium (ramp, shallot, garlic, whatever), oil, salt & pepper and probably cheese (and for those real risk takers maybe an acidic component). If you remove any one or two elements (or add elements) then you could ask are you still talking about a pesto? One of the better simple recipes can be found at

                                          I was thinking more along the lines of a light alternative as original post alludes to and since fish was mentioned it was a natural stretch - also the spinach fills the missing green requirement. I guess in haste I left out my unwritten thought which was a simple addition of parsley (or chervil) and shallot to the walnut sauce and there you go back into the safe land of pesto-like with a lighter flavor. Sometimes when you reach deep for just the essence of a dish you lose some of its essential parts, it is not for good or for bad, or right or wrong but just variation and creation. btw like the addition of salty cotija with pepitas and cilantro in your variation.

                                          Now if we are talking garlicky, salty, green sauces without nuts , I'll opt for the chimichurri route any day whether as marinade, topping, dipping sauce, or whatever !

                                          1. re: skibumwannabe

                                            Do cilantro in place of basil. I also agree with the above posters regarding walnuts in place of pine nuts (cheaper, too). Try using roasted garlic instead of raw, it gets so nice and sweet when roasted.