What Is Pesto—and What Should You Serve It With?

Updated 04/24/18
what is pesto
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From its rich green color to its ubiquitous presence in raw bowls, pastas, and a number of unexpected dishes, pesto is one of the most versatile foods on the planet—but what is pesto made of, exactly? To help with this quandary (and encourage a well-stocked pantry), we’ve gathered all the data you need on what pesto is, where you’ll find it, and how to serve it. Read on for some of our favorite takes on pesto.

What is pesto?

Simply stated, pesto is a colorful sauce that originated in Genoa, a major city along the coast of northwestern Italy. It’s typically made from a combination of crushed pine nuts, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, olive oil, and basil leaves, which give the sauce its distinctive bright green hue. It has a light texture, which is the result of its traditional preparation method: being thoroughly ground with a mortar and pestle. This element, the pestle, is also where the term pesto comes from.

What Can You Serve Pesto With?

While pesto is most heavily associated with Italian cuisine, it’s also made its way into a number of European cooking trends and can be added to almost anything. One of our favorite applications is in the Whole30 pesto spaghetti squash recipe. Or, if simple and endlessly Instagrammable dishes are more your speed, we also recommend a spring pea and carrot salad topped with pesto. Pesto serves as an ideal substitute for tomato-based pasta sauces and makes a terrific addition to vegetable plates, warm or cold salads, and chicken dishes.

As might be expected, many pesto dishes are garnished with raw pine nuts or freshly chopped basil. Contemporary iterations of pesto include variants with kale, quinoa, and a host of other ingredients. And while the original recipe is not vegan-friendly, there are of course a number of versions that are. If you’re shopping for pesto at the store, lean toward fresh (read: refrigerated) and, because the ingredients are so varied, opt for organic if you can. Or, better yet, learn how to make your own pesto at home.

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