Just What is Pesto?

Since I wrote my first blog on pesto a few months ago some people have been asking me exactly what it is. Just what is pesto? 

Well, first of all it is a sauce. The basic ingredients of pesto sauce are common to all these recipes: fresh basil leaves, cheese (either Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino), pine nuts or walnuts, garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper. The great debate, and the great fun, about pesto is deciding on the proper proportions with which to combine these ingredients and whether to add any extras. Ultimately, with some experimentation, you can make pesto that suits your tastes exactly.  

Traditionally, pesto sauce is made by hand with a mortar and pestle. Fortunately, we have food processors and blenders, which make the job much easier. Save your energy for other things, like making fresh pasta to go with the pesto.

Pesto can be applied to just about any shape of pasta and other ingredients can be included. Pesto is also excellent in many soups, from vegetable soups such as minestrone. Pine nuts are actually the seeds produced by certain varieties of pine tree; they are found on the pine cones, where they are covered by a hard shell. There are several varieties of pine trees that produce pine nuts, including the umbrella pine or stone pine. Most edible pine nuts grow in Southern Europe, particularly Italy and France, although some also grow in Spain, Portugal, and the southern United States. 

The greatest exponent of monounsaturated fat is olive oil, and it is a prime component of any pesto. Olive oil is a natural juice, which preserves the taste, aroma, vitamins and properties of the olive fruit. Olive oil is the only vegetable oil that can be consumed as it is – freshly pressed from the fruit. Furthermore you can't beat pesto in terms of nutrition. Basil contains iron, calcium, Vitamin A, dietary fiber, magnesium, Vitamin A and calcium. 

Basil also contains the antioxidants that protect human cells against disease and pollution. Basil also contains estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene, which are antibacterial agents that protect against bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli Yersinia enterocolitica, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Basil also contains cyclooxygenase that acts as an natural antinflammatory. Of course pesto is a good food for adults too.

The beneficial health effects of olive oil are due to both its high content of monounsaturated fatty acids and its high content of antioxidative substances. Studies have shown that olive oil offers protection against heart disease by controlling LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels while raising HDL (the “good” cholesterol) levels. (1-3) No other naturally produced oil has as large an amount of monounsaturated as olive oil -mainly oleic acid.  Pine nuts contain alpha-lineolic acid, which is an amino acid responsible for keeping all of the other amino acids in the body working smoothly together. 

The cheese in pesto is also a high source of calcium.  An added bonus?  The garlic in it prevents kids from getting sick. The best thing about pesto is that many kids seem to really love it, especially if you put it on pizza or on top of spaghetti and call it something like monster spaghetti.