Intensely flavourful, herbal, cheesy, and garlicky – what’s not to love about fresh basil pesto? If you’ve got a bounty of basil in your garden, you’ve got the makings for this classic Italian sauce that livens up every dish you can think of to plop it onto. (Skip to recipe)

ingredients for classic basil pesto with Parmesan and pine nuts

Tomayto, tomahto? How do you say it? How about basil – is it bay-zil or bah-zil?

Well I say bah-zil, and I like it that way. I guess it’s closer to the German word for the herb – Basilikum. Upon a little Wikipedia poking, it seems the UK and European pronunciation is bah-zil (ˈbæzəland the US pronunciation is bay-zil (ˈbzəl). Here in Canada, both tend to be used interchangeably.

However you say it, basil is a herb beloved by many people. Its name comes from Greek and means ‘king of herbs’. It’s quite delicate, as herbs go – not handling cold weather well, turns black quickly when cut or exposed to heat, freezing, or acid, loses a lot of its flavour when dried, and doesn’t keep more than a few days once cut. But basil’s fantastic fresh flavour is what makes it king of the herbs. It’s most often used fresh in recipes or added in the last few minutes of cooking to preserve that taste, which is herbal, slightly licorice, even a bit sweet and perfumey, yet pungent – hard to describe. Sweet basil (or Genovese basil) is one of the main herbs used in Italian cooking. Thai basil or lemon basil are very popular in Thai and southeast Asian cooking, and holy basil is widely used in Indian medicine and teas and in Ayurvedic practices.

And we love beautiful basil here in North America, too.

beautiful leaves for the basil pesto

a heaping pile of sweet basil

Basil is one of the herbs included in Italian seasoning mix and lends its flavour to many Italian dishes. It’s added to canned Italian tomato products and sauces. But the herb’s most well-known use is probably in that wonderful classic – basil pesto; vibrantly green and intensely garlicky, slightly cheesy, pungent, yet with that herbal sweetness that comes from using fresh basil leaves.

classic basil pesto, with pine nuts and garlic

With a jar of basil pesto in your fridge you’ve got the makings to elevate any meal to gourmet status. Slather it on pasta of course, but you can also coat steamed new potatoes with it, add a spoonful to vinaigrettes or salads, plop some on top of freshly grilled or pan-fried meats or seafood, stir it into eggs, plop it onto pizza, layer it on sandwiches and burgers . . . . the possibilities are endless.

a spoonful of classic Genovese basil pesto - so good

We’ve got a couple basil plants in our garden – enough to use in salads or on sandwiches, but not enough to really indulge ourselves or roll in it like I do in my fantasies. (That would be heaven!) So last week when a generous friend came visiting with a big plastic grocery bag stuffed full of fresh basil from her garden, I knew what I was going to do – after restraining myself from shoving my face into the bag, rooting my nose around in the fragrant leaves, and inhaling myself into a basil-stupor.

I knew I had to make pesto – lovely classic Genovese basil pesto. The word pesto comes from the Italian word pestare, which means to pound or crush. If I was going to be strictly traditional, that’s what I’d do. But I’m not (traditional, I mean). I’m lazy. Plus, I don’t have massive, muscly biker arms or Italian mama pesto-pounding shoulders. I use my food processor. I’m done in five minutes and have jars of beautiful green elixir to use fresh or to freeze for a taste of Italian summer when we’re in the depths of winter.

basil pesto ingredients in the food processor

smooth basil pesto

trimmings from the basil pesto

Earlier this year I made and froze a batch of out-of-this-world garlic scape pesto (also with the lazy food processor method), so now I’ve got some of both squirreled away in the freezer.

And if you’ve got a bounty of parsley on your hands – why not try the zesty Argentinian chimichurri sauce? Another amazing green-power flavour blaster!

* * * * *

Kitchen Frau Notes: Don’t worry if you don’t have exactly the right amount of basil leaves on your hands – there’s no little kitchen police who define exactly what ‘lightly packed’ or ‘tightly packed’ means when relating to springy leaves. Just use a couple good big handfuls – anywhere from 2 to 4 cups of leaves would work. If you’ve got more leaves, just add a drizzle more oil at the end to get the right consistency.

The same goes for the other ingredients, too; a big handful of Parmesan, a small handful of pine nuts, and a sprinkle of salt work as well as the amounts I’ve given below. Trust your instincts. Go by taste.

classic basil pesto - green and flavourful

Classic Basil Pesto

  • ~3 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves (100gms), thick stems removed
  • ½ cup (60gms) grated Parmesan cheese
  • ¼ cup (35gms) pine nuts (or chopped walnuts)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more to drizzle on top

Place the basil, Parmesan, pine nuts, garlic, salt, and pepper into the bowl of a food processor. Process until coarsely ground.

Keep the motor running and add the olive oil in a thin stream, until the pesto is emulsified and smooth with a slightly chunky texture.

Divide into jars, and smooth the surface of the pesto with the back of a spoon. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil on top and swirl the jar to coat the pesto evenly with the oil. This helps prevent the top from oxidizing and turning black. (And no worries – the blackened bits are fine to eat, even if they don’t look as bright and fresh.)

Fresh basil pesto lasts for up to a week in the refrigerator. If you can’t use it all up, pesto freezes well.

*To freeze pesto: Either fill ice cube trays with pesto and pop the frozen cubes into a freezer bag – they’ll keep for up to six months. Or fill small jars or containers, leaving a half inch headspace, then pour a slick of oil on the surface of the pesto, seal, and freeze for up to a year.

Makes 1 and 1/3 cups (320ml).

Guten Appetit!

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Rich and flavorful, classic Genovese Basil Pesto

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