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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Basil pesto (and what my mother taught me)

My fridge is slowly breeding jars of pesto.

No, I haven't found a magical cloning forcefield (hello Zumbo macarons!), but I have started a mini-processing factory in the kitchen - one that converts abandoned bunches of basil into that gloriously green paste: pesto.

My mother always taught me to 'waste not, want not'. As a kid, it was an oft-heard lecture about starving children in China, about the time and effort taken to grown a single grain of rice, about the value of money, and about not wasting food. Today it's a strange coming of circle where global concerns about the environment, sustainability, landfill, pollution and water conservation mean all the frugal things my mother used to do--those penny-pinching habits that always made us cringe as kids--have become responsible, enviable, dare I say, noble steps to help save our environment.

With age comes appreciation, and now I'm glad my mother taught us so well. I'm glad she instilled in us the importance of saving money. I'm glad she taught us how to turn leftovers into amazing meals. And I'm still rather glad I moved out of home!

She's in my conscience all the time anyway. I've had too many heart-stopping moments not to realise "I'm turning into my mother!". I hate to waste food which is why I'm usually pretty good at refrigerator patrol, constantly keeping an eye on foods that need to be eaten, and working out ways to use or preserve foods so they don't end up in the bin.

Pesto is my latest hobby. Whether it's a leftover bunch of basil in the fridge, or a bargain box of basil picked up at the markets at the end of day, it gets united with olive oil and pine nuts and whizzed up in the food processor. Not only do you stop food waste, you save money and you have great-tasting convenience food for a easy last-minute dinner. And Mum doesn't mind a free jar of home-delivered pesto too.

Basil Pesto

Pesto is not an exact science. You can easily adjust the ratio of ingredients to your personal preference, but as a rough guide:

1 large bunch of washed and picked basil leaves
1 clove garlic
1/3-1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
good pinch of salt
30g-60g grated parmesan cheese (depending on taste)
3 Tablespoons toasted pine nuts

Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until smooth.
Add a little more oil if necessary.
I prefer chunkier pine nuts so I add these at the last minute, when the pesto has already been pulsed a few times.

Transfer the pesto into clean glass screw top jars. Don't fill the pesto to the brim as you should pour a layer of olive oil on top to prolong the shelf life of the pesto.

Use the pesto with spaghetti (thin the pesto with a little bit of the pasta water to help it stick), in a pasta salad, on pizzas, as a marinade for chicken or lamb, as a dressing for juicy tomato wedges, spread on cold meat sandwiches, or in whatever combination you fancy.

Variations: You can also add to or replace the basil with rocket leaves. Pinenuts can be substituted with almonds, cashews or walnuts as you please.

Useful food-saving articles and websites:
Save Food Stop Waste (Australia)
Love Food Hate Waste (UK)
Gordon Brown urges Britons to stop food waste (UK Guardian)
Wasted Food (US blog)

5 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 1/10/2009 12:29:00 am


  • At 1/10/2009 9:49 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Yum, I like your ideas for using pesto on pizzas and sandwiches. One of my favourite websites is
    which has some interesting ideas.

  • At 1/11/2009 1:17 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Arwen - I've had too many pizzas and sandwiches with pesto not to think about re-creating it at home :) And yep I love all those handy home tips. I miss reading them in the Sunday paper and the women's mags when I was a kid.

  • At 1/12/2009 8:41 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You are so resourceful. Excellent way to use up excess basil. How long could you keep a jar for?

    Never really liked pesto on pasta. Much preferred to have it on bread. David use to bring in a homemade jar and we would slather it on bread all day. It was a nice break from our usual lasagna and chips. Good times. I miss working with David.

  • At 1/12/2009 12:21 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    great timing - i've been recently discussing with my husband the best way to make and store pesto. we have HUGE amounts of basil growing and need to do something with it!

    i'm trying to find out a way that we can make it so that it can be stored, maybe in sterilised glass jars. any ideas?

  • At 1/12/2009 9:01 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Veruca Salt - I find that a good layer of olive oil on top helps keep the mould at bay. I've kept a jar for about 6 weeks now and it's still good. I think once you start dipping into it, it's best to use within two weeks or so. I store them in small jars to reduce contamination.

    Pesto on bread sounds so rich :) I like it on pasta or in a pasta salad with roasted veggies.

    Hi Lindsey Clare - As I say to Veruca, I've kept jars in my fridge for about 6 weeks ok. I'm not sure about long-term storage though. Perhaps Google has the answer?

    Otherwise you could sell them at work? :) Or have a fundraiser for charity with them?


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