Pistachio Pesto: A Twist on a Classic

For me, pesto is one of those dishes that feel special and luxurious but still doesn’t leave me with a pile of dishes to do afterward. My love for pesto is endless; it’s my version of mayo or ketchup- a must-have condiment. I am fully in favor of most shortcuts in the kitchen: go ahead and use that pre-made puff pastry or chicken sausage. Pesto, however, is not one cheat that I can vouch for. Most pre-made pestos lack the full flavor punch that the sauce should deliver. While I am a devotee of Trader Joes 99% of the time, their jarred Genovese Pesto is a travesty- it is far too thick and chunky, and tastes overwhelmingly of just olive oil. Making the sauce is worth it- it only takes five minutes and six ingredients.

My favorite things about pesto are its simplicity and versatility. You really only need one tool to make pesto: a food processor, mini-chopper, or blender: any tool with a powered blade will do. Combine everything, give it a whiz, add the oil, give it another whiz, and boom- you’ve got sauce bursting with delicious herby saltiness. For serving pesto with pasta, save some of the pasta water that the pasta was boiled in. Adding a 1/4 to 1/2 cup of this starchy, salty goodness to your pesto right before adding it to the cooked pasta will make the sauce silky and help it distribute evenly over the pasta. Pasta water= liquid gold.

While of course pesto and pasta will never fail you, feel free to think beyond noodles. I use it as a sauce for pizza or a spread on sandwiches and grilled cheese: a tomato, turkey, pesto, and mozzarella cheese panini is one heck of a lunch. It’s also great as a sauce to spice up a perfectly fine, but slightly boring dinner, like roast chicken and veggies. This recipe even has breakfast potential: it’s a fun take on a big Saturday morning breakfast scramble: think eggs, potatoes, red bell peppers, zucchini, goat cheese, and pesto.

As a grown adult who sometimes struggles to eat her green leafy vegetables, pesto is also a savior. I trick myself into eating them by substituting half of the basil in the recipe with arugula. The arugula adds a nice pepperiness that is balanced by the creaminess of the nuts and cheese. If you’re cooking for kids or adults who eat like kids and looking for a nutritious pesto, this variation has got your back.

Traditionally, pesto is made with pine nuts, but I prefer pistachios. I am a Ph.D. student (aka low on the disposable income scale) and pine nuts are twice the price of pistachios, so here we are. Pistachios also add a bit of sweetness and make the pesto creamier. I had many pistachio-focused dishes when researching for my dissertation in Sicily (it’s a traditional product of the region) and came to fully realize the nut’s utility for savory dishes. I prefer my pesto to be less olive oil forward; I want the basil, cheese, and nuts to take center stage. Thus, I use less olive oil than other recipes; if you want the olive oil to shine through, feel free to use more. I love the taste of raw garlic, garlic breath is damned. I usually add four garlic cloves to my recipe, but I’ve listed two here for those of us who are less garlic inclined. Two cloves give you a good baseline of garlic flavor; if you’re like me and you want that garlic flavor to be more pronounced, feel free to add more.

One final exaltation in favor of pesto: it freezes beautifully. Put extra pesto into the reusable container of your choice, add a thin layer of olive oil to the top, and freeze. To defrost, move the pesto from the freezer to the fridge a couple of hours before cooking to let it thaw. Stir vigorously, and then fully reheat over the stove on low or in the microwave on defrost. Then use it liberally, and help me on my campaign to make pesto the new gold standard of condiments. Enjoy and eat well!

Pesto Recipe


Juice of 2 medium lemons

2 garlic cloves, peeled

2.5 oz basil leaves

2 oz or 1/2 cup pistachios

0.5 oz or 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese (plus more for serving if desired)

1/3 cup olive oil

1/4 cup water

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp pepper


Food Processor ( or blender or mini-chopper)


  1. Add all ingredients except olive oil and water to a food processor.

2. Pulse until rough, chunky paste forms. ( I have a food processor from the 1980s, so I shake mine back and forth to get everything combined; you may need to do so as well to get everything gets incorporated.)

3. Scrape down the edges of the food processor and stir the mixture a few times.

4. With the food processor on, stream in the olive oil and water. Continue to pulse until fully combined. The thickness of the pesto should resemble ketchup: thick enough not to run off the spoon, but still a bit liquidy. You may have to add a bit more olive oil to achieve the desired texture. Taste and add salt if desired. Buon Appetito!

Pasta serving instructions

For pasta, reserve 1/4 to 1/2 cup of pasta cooking liquid and add this to the pesto right before mixing it in within the pasta. The resulting mixture should be the thickness of store-bought tomato sauce. I recommend serving pesto with whole wheat fusilli: the nuttiness of the pasta compliments the nuttiness of the pesto and the shape of the fusilli noodles really hangs onto the sauce. Good additions to pesto pasta are fresh chopped tomatoes, grilled chicken, or mini balls of fresh mozzarella.



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