They say pesto sauce originated in Genoa, the capital city of Liguria, Italy. But this simple sauce can actually be traced to the ancient Romans. Romans made a very similar dish called “moretum,” a spread made of garlic, cheese, herbs, olive oil, vinegar, and salt. Another influential sauce was “agliata“, a garlic sauce, common during the Middle Ages. Basil, the main ingredient in modern day pesto, was actually not introduced till the mid-19th century.
Variations of this simple, no-cook sauce have existed cross-culturally for many years, but it did not gain popularity in the US till the late 1980s. Less common on menus than it once was, this beloved sauce should not be forgotten. If you ask me, a classic pesto recipe is a solid one to have in your arsenal of “must-have” basics.
There are numerous variations of pesto out there; some use a combination of marjoram and parsley instead of basil. The French version, called “pistou“, (often used to garnish soup) uses a mixture of basil and parsley as the base. And more modern twists on this classic sauce use kale or even arugula, for a more pronounced peppery bitter green flavor. You can also reduce the amount of basil and add spinach for a more mellow, kid-friendly version.
What I love most about pesto is its simplicity and versatility. This is an easy no-cook, prep-ahead sauce that keeps well in the refrigerator or freezer (although hold off on adding the cheese when doing this). Basil pesto is incredibly versatile and can be used with any type of pasta, including baked dishes like lasagna, but also works well on pizzas, fish, and chicken, or as garnish to numerous hors d’oeuvres and appetizers.
I was first introduced to pesto in college at a well-known local farmer’s market in Wisconsin. This homemade pesto was so popular, that students would line up early on a freezing cold Saturday morning to get some, (well that and the warm cheese bread known to cure almost any hangover). This recipe is not a complicated one, but worth it. My only advice, make a double batch, it goes fast, at least it does in my house.