I love pesto and have been playing around with recipes for several years. I like it so much that I tend to pile it on whenever I use it, so I wanted to find a way to make it a bit lighter and healthier. Since there’s not a lot to making pesto (basil, nuts, garlic, parmesan, and olive oil) there’s also not a lot of room to play around with the ingredients. My approach has been two-fold: making some substitutions toward lower-fat ingredients and playing up the intensity of other ingredients.
My substitution was minimal – I replaced a good bit of the olive oil with freshly-squeezed lemon juice. This wound up having three advantages. First, it reduced the amount of fat in the recipe (even though olive oil is a healthy fat, it does add a lot of calories to the pesto). It also brightened up the taste – I’m fond of citrus and find that adding lemon or lime juice to many recipes improves the flavor. Finally, it helps to keep the pesto a nice green color, even after refrigerating for a day or two.
I like to use pine nuts in my pesto (other recipes call for walnuts or other nuts). I decided to try toasting them in a skillet, which not only made my kitchen smell amazing but intensified their flavor. As a result, I was able to use a little less than I otherwise would have (although I didn’t reduce the amount too much because I think they add to the texture). I used more garlic than many recipes use, and also toasted the garlic in a pan. Finally, I substituted pecorino romano cheese for the more commonly-used parmesan. I make this substitution a lot – a good quality pecorino cheese has such an intense flavor that I need very little of it compared to using parmesan.
I toasted the pine nuts in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat for only about 3 or 4 minutes, stirring or shaking the pan constantly. You’ll need to keep a close eye on them so they don’t burn. I take them off the heat as soon as they are turning a golden brown and smell nicely toasted. I let them cool before adding them so they didn’t wilt the basil.
I toasted whole, unpeeled cloves of garlic in the same skillet (after toasting the pine nuts) for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until they were getting soft and starting to brown. After cooling for a few minutes, they were easy to peel (the skins came right off).
To make the pesto combine in a food processor or blender:
- 4 cups basil, tightly packed
- 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted and cooled
- 10 cloves garlic, toasted and cooled
- 1 tsp. salt
Turn on the food processor and add in a steady stream:
- 4 Tbsp. olive oil
- 8 Tbsp. lemon juice
When the ingredients are well combined and the basil is nicely pureed, stir in:
- 1/4 cup pecorino romano cheese
Use immediately, or store in jars. It will keep in the refrigerator for a few days or in the freezer for several months. When storing my pesto, I cover it with a thin layer of olive oil to keep the air from getting to the pesto. My recipe made five 4-ounce jars of pesto.