Perk Up Your Dishes With Pesto

Take the flavor of pesto beyond pasta. Our fresh ideas and recipe variations make it easy.

Most of us know pesto as a great complement to pasta, but why stop there? The fresh taste of pesto can add depth of flavor to a variety of foods, including soups, sandwiches, salads, and grilled meats. 

“In Italian, pesto simply means paste,” explains Dan Kish, head chef at Panera Bread®. “It’s traditionally made with a mortar and pestle, and the ingredients are not just ground together but emulsified—a cooking technique that binds flavors together.” 

The result: “A delicious mash of herbs and nuts that works as a condiment, a spread, a sauce…you name it,” says Dan. One of his favorite ways to use pesto is to stir it into cream cheese and serve the mixture as a dip. 

Wherever you take pesto, start with quality ingredients for the best flavor. Typically, pesto is made with basil, pine nuts, Parmesan, and olive oil, but you can vary the recipe a number of ways. To help you get started with your own pesto creations, try these recipes and ideas for traditional flavor with a twist. 

Turn to Tomatoes

Panera uses flavor-rich sun-dried tomatoes in the new Roasted Turkey & Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto Breakfast Sandwich. At home, you can make your own sun-dried tomato pesto. Here’s a sample recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves 
  • ¼ cup chopped walnuts 
  • 2 cloves garlic 
  • 6 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes 
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan 
  • ½ teaspoon salt 
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes 
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil 

Directions

  1. Chop the basil, walnuts, and garlic in a food processor. Add the tomatoes, cheese, salt, and red pepper flakes. Pulse to combine, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Drizzle in the oil with the machine running. Process to a coarse paste.
  2. Get creative with greens. “Another great variation on traditional pesto is to use arugula and walnuts,” says Dan, “or kale and hazelnuts.” He recommends these nuts because they pack a lot of punch to stand up to the intense flavor of the arugula and kale.
  3. Add an Asian twist. Try making a pesto with cilantro, spinach, and roasted peanuts, Dan suggests. “Add a bit of miso and chile paste and serve it over cold noodles—it’s delicious.”

Go low-fat

A few simple ingredient swaps can lower the fat in traditional pesto.

Ingredients

  • 2¼ cups fresh basil leaves 
  • ¼ cup toasted walnuts 
  • ¼ cup chopped scallions (1-inch pieces) 
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice 
  • 2 cloves garlic 
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 
  • ¾ cup defatted chicken broth or vegetable broth 
  • 3 tablespoons grated reduced-fat Parmesan 

Directions

Chop the basil, walnuts, and scallions in a food processor. Add the lemon juice, garlic, and pepper. Pulse to combine, scraping down the sides of the bowl. With the motor running, slowly add the broth and cheese, blending until well mixed.

Create your own flavors

The great thing about pesto is that you can easily substitute an equal amount of herbs or greens in any combination for the basil. The same holds true for the nuts. “It’s something that really lends itself to creativity,” says Dan. 

Whether you prefer to eat yours spooned over a bowl of steaming pasta, spread on a panini, added to a chicken salad, or served as a garnish for grilled steak, you’ll appreciate the singular fresh flavor of this versatile sauce.