A traditional well-made pesto is a beautiful thing. Aromatic fresh basil, rich extra-virgin olive oil, authentic Parmigiano Reggiano, piquant garlic and crunchy pine nuts add up to perfection…but they can also add up at the cash register. So I've been grateful every time I learned a new tip to help ease the pain on my pesto pocket book. First, I grow my own basil as long as weather permits, make big batches of pesto at once and divide up into portions for the freezer. I toast—and then cool—the pine nuts to coax even more flavor out of them.
I also discovered that it isn't necessary to drown the pasta in pesto, especially if you use decent pasta and cook it in salted water for the right amount of time. In fact, the overarching lesson I learned about pesto is to consider it a seasoning…every ingredient is power packed with flavor, so you don't need a ton of it. That led me to thinking about other flavor-rich ingredients that perhaps would offer a similar—if not quite so incredible—seasoning experience in a pesto, but without the incredible cost.
I started with the cheese. I absolutely worship Parmigiano Reggiano. The minimum-2-year-aged treasure we offer in our stores is truly worth every nibble…and that's how I like to enjoy it, in little nibbles, perhaps with a touch of honey. It is uh-mazing stuff. What I have decided not to do with this nice stuff is bury it in pesto. Instead, I use Argentine Parmesan or good-quality domestic Parmesan in my pesto instead, or I use another hard grating cheese with intense flavor, such as Pecorino Romano, Sardo, Grana Padano or Dry Jack. These don't always cost less but if you know there are options, you can watch for sales on pretty much any "hard grating cheese," or just choose to change up the flavor and cut your pesto cost in another way, right? In fact, you could even make pesto without cheese—gasp!—with or without adding a little nutritional yeast as a substitute (a trick I learned from vegan recipes).
Once I was "over" the cheese hump, I was released from the traditional definition of pesto. Incidentally, "pesto" simply translates to "pounded" and I'd long ago liberated myself from hand pounding my pesto, opting instead to not waste the laborious efforts of those who invented food processors and blenders.
That said, I do occasionally do the old-fashioned thing with a mortar and pestle to make pesto or a rustic hummus.
So, my mind freed from convention, I began imagining all of the super-flavorful ingredients and possible combinations for pesto. I will admit right here up front that I had already seen some non-basil pesto varieties in the refrigerated case in the our stores and we have some interesting pestos
in our recipe database too, so I cannot claim to have invented all of these combinations. But here you go, have fun and definitely share your ideas for flavor combos and money-saving pesto tips!
Try these pesto combos for a pesto change-o!
- cilantro & pumpkin seeds
- black olives & cashews
- parsley & pecans
- sundried tomatoes & pistachios
- poblano or hatch chiles & pumpkin seeds
- spinach & walnuts
- arugula & pecans
- artichoke hearts & almonds
What goes into your favorite pesto?