Fresh Pesto with Roasted Tomatoes - Recipe

There is a row of massive basil in the kitchen garden.  It is time to make pesto!  Pesto is basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and Parmesan cheese all minced together to make a sauce.  It's delicious tossed with pasta, to add a little kick to soup, as a spread on sandwiches.  A roasted vegetable pesto sandwich is amazing.  I'll have to make a post about that soon!

I was first introduced to pesto in high school by my cool and mysteriously artsy friend, Erika, whose mother threw pottery and made pesto for after school snacks. So I still think of pesto as earthy and chic, but now I know how easy it is to make.  This is the time of year in the Midwest when those basil plants have grown to shrub size proportions, so get out there and do some pruning! And if you don't have any in the garden, check your farmer's market or local CSA. 

In the garden, start by removing any flowers.  You don't want your basil plants to waste their time making flowers, leaves are what you want.  Unless you want to collect seeds and in that case flowers are necessary.  I'm just thinking about the pesto here. 

Basil will not survive a frost.  On the night of the first frost I usually run out and pick all of my herbs and then dry or freeze them to keep through the winter.  (I should do a post on that too!)  We aren't quite there yet so I only harvest enough basil to make four batches of pesto. 

Only four batches... okay I realize that does sound like a lot, but you have to understand how huge the basil plants are; I probably only picked 4% of the leaves out there.  The great part about pesto is it freezes well.  And as long as you are making one batch you might as well make four and only do the dishes once. See there is a method to my madness.  Then on busy nights I can just make some pasta and toss it with the pesto for a quick dinner. 

I use Cook's Illustrated's recipe for pesto.  They suggest throwing in some parsley with the basil to increase the green color.  Basil by itself turns a very deep almost black green, while the parsley stays a nice true green.  It does change the flavor slightly, I like the addition of the parsley, but you don't have to add it. 

Cook's Illustrated also recommends bruising the basil to release the oils and hence more of its flavor before putting it in the food processor.  Traditionally the pesto is ground  in a mortar and pestle which is a lot of work.  I've got a short cut.  I'll tell you more about how to do that in the recipe. 

Classic Basil Pesto

1/4 cup pine nuts (you could also use walnuts or almonds)
3 medium garlic cloves
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves (optional)
7 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon salt
1 pound of pasta

Step 1:  Toast the nuts in a small heavy skillet.  Don't add oil, just do it dry.  Pine nuts in particular will go from toast to burnt very quickly so use low heat and mix them around frequently until they are golden brown and fragrant.  It shouldn't take more than 4-5 minutes.  Set the nuts aside to cool.

Step 2:  Using the same skillet brown the garlic with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. 

Step 3:  Pick all the leaves off the stems.  (Check out my water bath canner doubling as a basil vase.  I was completely out of bowls.)  All you want are nice tender leaves. 

Next bruise the basil and parsley to bring out their flavor.  Place the basil and parsley in a large zip-lock bag and seal it most of the way.  You want to leave a little opening for air to escape.  Now the fun part, use the flat side of a meat pounder or a rolling pin to bruise the basil.  You will know when you are done when all the basil has turned a darker, wet looking green color. 

Step 4:  Combine the pine nuts, garlic, basil, parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the remaining 6 tablespoons of olive oil in the food processor.  Process until smooth.  You can also use a blender for this part.  Or if you are really dedicated do it the old fashioned way with a mortar and pestle.  Once everything is smooth transfer your basil mixture to a small bowl and stir in the Parmesan cheese.

Step 5:  Now at this point you can package and freeze your pesto if you like.  Some folks like to freeze it in ice-cube trays so they can pop a cube out to throw in a soup or season up a sauce. 

I like to put mine in small freezer bags.  The above recipe serves four and since there are two of us, I divide the recipe in into two freezer bags, squish all the air out so they are flat as a pancake, seal, label and put them in the freezer.  I love this method because it takes up so little space and it's already portioned.  Except for this time I realized I didn't have pine nuts and I was out of zip-lock bags, so I just put it all in one bag and I'll come back later and mix in the pine nuts. 

You can also keep pesto in the fridge by covering the bowl with plastic wrap.  Make sure to press the plastic wrap right down onto the top of the pesto so there is not air to oxidize and lose flavor.  The recipe says it will keep this way for up to three days.  If you want to eat that pesto right now, continue on to step six. 

Step 6:  Bring four quarts of water to a rolling boil in a large pot.  Add the tablespoon of salt and the pasta to the boiling water.  Cook until the pasta is al dente.  Then reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water.  Drain the pasta and return it to the pot.  I used thin spaghetti because I like that it cooks in just 7 minutes but use whatever pasta you fancy.  Rotini is particularly nice because it has lots of nooks and crannies to hold the sauce. 

Step 7:  Stir in 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water in with the pesto, then toss the pasta with the pesto.  Add a little more of the pasta water if needed to get the pesto to distribute evenly.  You can serve this hot or let it cool to room temperature. 

If you want to feel like you are dining at a chic cafe serve the pasta in swirls by twirling it around a fork before placing it in little nests on the plate.  Cluster three or five swirls together and top with a sprig of basil and serve. 

I threw on some partially dehydrated cherry tomatoes which really helped balance out our meal.  You could also mix in shredded chicken, sautéed veggies (think onion, mushroom and zucchini).  Pesto is a lovely base and is lots of fun to experiment with and it will make your whole house smell like Italy.  I hope you try it. 

I've been dehydrating cherry tomatoes about once a week since the beginning of August.  I can never have enough! They go with everything.  In the winter I use the olive oil packed sun dried tomato and basil.  Follow the links for recipes and instructions.  This is the last post in my series on cooking with garden fresh tomatoes.  Check out all the recipes together here:  Tomato Recipes and Ideas.  Up next I'll be looking at winter squash. 


  1. Learned not only a new recipe but some important facts, like removing the flowers of my basil plants and also that I can freeze pesto... thanks!

  2. Anonymous9/12/2010


  3. Pesto is something that I make every summer and keep it over the colder weather to enjoy

  4. Mmmmm, I can't remember the last time I had pesto - especially home made pesto. That's definitely on this week's menu then.

  5. This looks wonderful! Thanks for the tips on pesto making!

  6. Lovely pasta. Nothing beats a good homemade pesto.

  7. I love pesto! Your dish is beautiful, and I like the step by step directions, well done!

  8. i wish I knew how to keep basil alive to be able to make all that good looking pesto!

  9. I have been looking for a simple pesto recipe and this looks amazing- Gotta try making this one!

  10. I make a dish just like this, and it's one of my favorite of the summer. Looks absolutely delicious

  11. I make pesto a lot but have never bruised the basil, what does that do? The color is so lovely!

  12. Anonymous9/12/2010

    Loooove making pesto this time of year. Just started to freeze mine yesterday, and then ran out of cheese. Have my stems sitting in my quart-sized liquid measuring container!

  13. Anonymous9/12/2010

    Beautiful pesto post. I made some myself today with almonds (couldn't find the pine nuts!) Also squeezed a little lemon juice in there to brighten it up - it was delicious.

  14. Definitely good info. I watch for the flowers on my basil plants every time I water them.

    I have also frozen pesto using mini muffin tins to create little pesto bites. They work well to throw into a sauce right from the freezer.

    The last time I made it I also used arugala from our CSA bag and it was a great add.


  15. Lovely looking dish, just gorgeous!

  16. We have made pesto before, but never knew about bruising the leaves. Also didn't know about removing the flowers on the plants. My husband went to do that right now. I learn so much from my fellow bloggers:)

  17. Anonymous9/13/2010

    Pesto is one of my favorite flavors, despite the (rather pitiful) fact that only recently did I discover pesto generally includes cheese. Who knew, right?

    I make a pretty good vegan version, but I've never made the classic. I may have to recreate your recipe here. Looks amazing. Thanks for the tips. I didn't know about the bruising either.

  18. Anonymous9/13/2010

    As always, beautiful pictures and the dish just looks divine!

  19. That pesto looks great. I have started making mine with walnuts and I don't cook anything in it. It's always fun to see the different variations of classic recipes.

  20. We have 3 plants of basil growing in our garden so I often make pesto and freeze it! I love pesto in pasta, sandwich, on vegetables, crostini and more. Love it.

  21. Looks awesome!

    I always thought (still do to some degree) pesto was an "artsy" food! Glad I was not alone on that one...

  22. Anonymous9/14/2010

    ooh interesting I've never had much luck freezing chutneys or pesto... maybe this year I'll try again.

  23. There's no better combination than tomatoes and basil IMO, and we are coming into basil season in Australia soon!