Variations on Basil Pesto

As summer begins to draw to a close, it’s time for me to share my main weapon for taming a basil forest (and also impressing guests with a fresh but simple summertime meal): basil pesto. It’s amazing as a base for pizza, or tossed together with warm pasta and grilled or sauteed veggies. I even sometimes just throw resilient veggies (like broccoli and carrots) into the cooking pasta during the last few minutes to blanch them, and, lo and behold, there’s a vibrant and quick summertime dinner!

My old basil pot in Dallas, now Jon's (Courtesy of Jon Haupt)

I’ve found that homegrown basil is often really pungent, and the addition of spinach to the pesto calms down the sometimes overwhelming bitterness of the basil. The store-bought basil I’ve had lately has the opposite problem, so I’ve had success adding arugula instead, which gives it a bit more bite. Another bonus to adding one of these greens is that it seems to slow down the rate in which the pesto turns brown.

Regarding nuts, any nut will do really—pine nuts are more traditional, but I’ve had excellent results with both walnuts and almonds. My most recent batch was with arugula, walnuts, and extra garlic. Mmm…

Though I haven’t yet perfected growing basil in Northern California (definitely need to plant the seeds earlier!), my friends in Dallas are swimming in basil. So here you go, guys!

Recipe: Variations on Basil Pesto


  • 1 cup firmly packed basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed spinach or arugula (optional)
  • 1/4-1/2 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese
  • 1/4 pine nuts, walnuts, or almonds
  • 1-2 large cloves garlic, quartered
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8-1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil


  1. Blend all ingredients except olive oil into a blender or food processor, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides.
  2. Once everything is about a uniform size and paste-like, slowly pour in olive oil while blade is running, until the pesto has a smooth consistency.


Taste the basil before choosing whether to add spinach or arugula (or neither). Also, don’t skimp on the salt unless you have to—it’s necessary to meld the strong flavors together.


For a lower-fat version that works especially well on pasta, use only 1/4 cup cheese and replace half of the oil with water when blending the pesto.

Preparation time: 10 minute(s)

Cooking time:

Diet type: Vegetarian

Diet tags: Gluten free

Number of servings (yield): 12

This entry was posted in 15 minutes or less, gluten-free, vegetarian. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Variations on Basil Pesto

  1. Jon says:

    Yum! Your awesome recipe has become a staple for us, too. Sometimes I leave out the aged cheese entirely and just use it as a garnish on top—seems sacrilegious to some, I’m sure, but I swear no one ever seems to notice. Also, we use 3 or 4 cloves of garlic. One time, Laura and I made the pesto in a tag-team effort, crossed our wires, and ended up with about 8—and it was awesome. I don’t recommend it unless everyone’s confined to your house for the next several hours, though ;)

    Nothing seems to beat veggies grilled in a grill wok for this… that strategy kind of knocks out the “quick and easy” part, at least if you use a charcoal grill, but it seems to be more likely to elicit the “this is the best pesto I have ever had” response. :)

  2. Junia says:

    Wow! Experimenting in the kitchen with a purpose. Very cool :)

  3. Jon says:

    Best thing I learned all year that I wonder why it took me so long: olive oil’s bitterness when you employ mechanical (high speed) emulsification. I was making aioli and discovered this important fact. It’s hard to imagine this pesto recipe actually being improved, but I must say, it really is better if you use a different oil (not EVOO—even “regular” olive oil) until you have a nice mixture, then whisk in a little EVOO by hand for flavor. I use walnut oil for that first part—the taste is complementary. Cheers!

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