Easy to make and versatile to use, this aromatic sauce gives us lots of reasons to love it.
It’s rich, it’s delicious, it’s decadent…and it’s made with wholesome ingredients. Pesto, a super simple sauce usually served over pasta dishes like our Basil Pesto Sacchettini (though it’s also tasty on potatoes or as a dip), is a four- or five-ingredient wonder that delivers on all fronts. The most basic recipe is basil, garlic, olive oil, Parmesan, and pine nuts. Whirred in a blender or food processor, a little bit of this green goodness goes a long way (most pestos are high in calories—close to 200 per 2 tablespoon serving). So what makes pesto so irresistible? Let’s break it down.
Basil: This pungent plant has phytochemicals that act as antioxidants, neutralizing free radicals in the body. So go ahead and pack plenty in your food processor.
Garlic: This fragrant, versatile plant is also good for your heart. It’s another source of beneficial antioxidants and may help slow down atherosclerosis.
Olive oil: All fats are not created equal, and if you had to rank them with good up top and bad on the bottom, olive oil would be riding high thanks to its status as source of monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats have been shown to be heart-healthy because of their ability to help improve cholesterol levels. That said, all fats are high in calories, so keep your pesto-sauce portion small. (It’s easy to do since it’s so flavorful!)
Parmesan: This all-natural cheese is high in calcium and is a good source of protein. It, too, is relatively high in calories, but the great thing about this cheese is that its strong, salty, nutty flavor allows a little bit to go a long way. (Our nut-free pesto sauce is made with Romano and fetina cheeses.)
Pine nuts: Edible seeds of the pine tree, pine nuts are good sources of protein and vitamins (chiefly vitamin E). Their high fat content is their only cause for concern, but that’s only if you overdo it; in fact, pine nuts are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fat.
Pesto variations: Try swapping out pine nuts for walnuts, or leaving nuts out altogether. You can also trade other greens for the basil; arugula, for example, gives pesto a spicy, peppery bite. You can find additional tempting twists on traditional pesto from Dan Kish, head chef of Panera Bread, here.