Word association time: pesto.
What did you think of? For me, the word conjures not so much another word as it does a smell: perfume-y, licorice-y basil wrapped around a waft of sharp garlic.
But does pesto have to contain basil? Yes and no.
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If we’re talking about pesto alla Genovese, then yes. This is the sauce that, to quote Marcella Hazan in Essentials of Italian Cooking (1992), “. . . the Genovese invented as a vehicle for the fragrance of basil like no other, their own.” That sauce, according to Hazan, should contain basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, butter, grated cheese, and nothing else.
While the version from Genoa may be the original, there are other pestos (the word comes from the verb pestare, which means to grind or pound) enjoyed in Italy and elsewhere that do not contain basil. Here are four of our favorites.
Pesto di Prezzemolo
This parsley-based pesto is made by Italian cooks (particularly in Liguria) as the basil-growing season is winding down. Our version employs walnuts instead of pine nuts, capers for briny punch, lemon juice, and a few anchovy fillets for depth (they are optional—the little fishies add savory richness, but the pesto still shines without them). This pesto can be deployed in all the same ways you’d use basil pesto and is a great way to use up an excess of parsley.
Linguine with Pesto di PrezzemoloParsley steps into the spotlight in this deeply flavored pesto.
Beyond Pasta: Uses for Green Pesto
All of the non-basil pestos on this page can be spooned over steamed vegetables, potatoes, and tomatoes; dolloped onto seared meats; folded into omelets; swirled into hummus; fluffed into rice; stirred into soups; or mixed into mayonnaise as a sandwich spread or dip.
Garlic Scape Pesto
Since this pesto is based on the flavorful flower stems of the garlic plant—scapes—there is no other garlic in the mix. To make sure the vegetal, garlicky flavor of the scapes comes through, we also hold off on cheese and add a pinch of red pepper flakes.
Garlic Scape PestoA simple recipe showcases the flavor of this farmers' market find.
This pesto is part of a Cook’s Country recipe for Pan-Seared Chicken with Arugula Pesto Farfalle—it has the chicken and pasta built in, but it’s easy enough to just make the pesto and enjoy it as you see fit. Peppery arugula (or “rocket”) adds a pleasant sharpness that the rich nuts (walnuts, in this case) and cheese help round out. It’s a delicious twist.
Pan-Seared Chicken with Arugula Pesto FarfallePesto without basil? This weeknight recipe will make you a believer.
In 2022, Cook’s Country published a fantastic recipe for Pasta with Lamb and Mint-Pistachio Pesto (developed by Jessica Rudolph). As the name implies, that recipe bypasses the basil in favor of mint and uses pistachios instead of pine nuts; it also calls for lemon juice. Like most pestos, it can be made quickly in the food processor. This mint pesto is great with lamb and other robustly flavored proteins (salmon, bluefish, duck, venison, etc.).