What Is Pesto?

Simple Definition

Pesto is a sauce that contains crushed up basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan and olive oil. Simple, right? No, not quite because one unique quality of pesto is that it can take myriad forms.

Versatility Is a Virtue

Do any two pesto sauces taste exactly alike? No. Some may be similar to one another, but no two are identical. The recipe is so simple though. Remember?

Teacher: Can anybody tell me what pesto is?

Student: Oh, I know! Oh, call on me! [Teacher points to Student.] Oh, yeah. Okay. So it’s a sauce that contains crushed up basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan and olive oil. But teacher, what if instead of parmesan I use pecorino? Yeah! And you know what, pine nuts are way too expensive so instead of pine nuts, I’m going to use sunflower seeds. And some people like it dry, but I like it creamy. And with coconut flakes. Auntie Mabel sprinkles coconut flakes into hers. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

Teacher: Exactly, young padawan. You see, pesto recipes are notoriously varied. But tell me this, when do we use pesto?

Student: Oh, I know! Oh, call on me!

Uses of Pesto

The first known usage of the word “pesto” dates back to Italy during the Maritime Republic. In 1865, an Italian chef named Giovanni Battista Ratto was the first to publish a recipe that included pesto made from basil. In his recipe, pesto was used as a pasta sauce. Today, it is still primarily used as a pasta sauce. Over time, however, the uses of pesto have multiplied. People put it on sandwiches. People put it in tea. Yup–that’s right. People make pesto based soups. People put it on pizza. People drizzle it all over eggs. People bake it into bread. And, the author’s personal favorite, some people have ingeniously mixed pesto into mayonnaise, thus forming a hybrid type creation, a smooth and tangy beast. Some folks may call it basil aioli, but don’t be fooled. Pesto mayo is bottled lightning.

A Little Cloud

Back to our original query. Is pesto simply a sauce? Is pesto nothing more than crushed up basil, garlic, cheese and pine nuts shimmering in olive oil? The author’s answer to this philosophical conundrum is that it’s impossible to pigeonhole “pesto” into one form or usage. Rather, to understand the true, fluid essence of pesto, we must view it as something akin to a cloud that’s constantly, yet ever so slightly, changing shape.

As opposed to examining the question “What is Pesto?” in a traditional, canned way, we should attempt to understand the word “pesto” as a broad label for a sauce that can take on many forms and uses. We feel as though maintaining an open mind with respect to the question “What is pesto?” allows room for growth and creativity so that we pesto enthusiasts can continue to break through culinary barriers and challenge yet delight our taste buds.

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