Pesto Proportions

Pesto (3 of 5)

I have a really hard time following recipes. Not that the recipes turn out wrong, but that I am almost incapable of following all the steps as written to get to the end result. I skim through the list of ingredients, making mental notes about substitutions for the things I don’t have or don’t want to buy. Then I go through the instructions, ignoring steps that I think will unnecessarily dirty extra bowls and combining any steps that can be done together. I ask myself “why?” a lot when reading recipes and when I can’t find a satisfactory answer I just skip it. And usually it turns out just fine.

Pesto (1 of 5)

It’s not that I’m reckless about ditching ingredients and skipping steps. But most recipes can be easily tweaked, substituting one fat for another, one liquid for another, swapping ingredients to get a different flavor profile. Of course, some recipes are perfect as is (like Cook’s Illustrated Blueberry Scones or these cookies). But for the most part, things can always be altered slightly to save time and dishwashing effort and minimize the number of ingredients that go bad in the fridge after you’re finished. There’s lot of advice on how to cook without recipes, but most of it boils down to the same thing: use the recipe as the foundation and then change the building blocks to make something different. That’s what you see in these pictures – one recipe, for pesto, made into three very different sauces by swapping out ingredients. A fresh spring pea pesto, a Mediterranean-eques sundried tomato pesto, and a South American flavored cilantro pesto.

Pesto (4 of 5)Pesto (5 of 5)

Pesto is one of those recipes that can be endlessly tweaked if you keep the proportions mostly the same. Basil is the default choice and most recipes rely on it – combined with garlic, lemon juice, oil, pine nuts, and parmesan. But I don’t really like pine nuts so I don’t buy them. Sometimes I use another nut in their place, and sometimes I just use cheese and end up with a thinner version of pesto. Sometimes I use a vegan substitute (nutritional yeast) and add the nuts back in. And sometimes I make pesto that has nothing to do with basil – I use another herb as the base or just skip the herbs altogether and go for a different main flavor. Full disclosure: sometimes it ends up as a disaster, but most of the time the end result is something we’re happy to eat. Which brings me to the most important rule of playing around with recipes: write down what you did because otherwise you’ll end up with something delicious that you can’t replicate.

Pesto (2 of 5)

For the pestos pictured above:

Pesto Proportions
Prep time
Total time
Serves: 1 cup
  • 1 large bunch herbs or ¾ cup of your main ingredient (peas, sundried tomatoes, asparagus,etc)
  • 2-3 tbs acid (citrus juice or vinegar)
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • ¼ cup of nuts and/or ¼ cup of grated hard cheese (if you use both, the pesto will be a bit thicker and need more oil to be pourable)
  • Salt
  • Optional: 1-2 tbs of a complementary flavor
  1. COMBINE all ingredients except the oil in a food processor, blender, large mortar and pestle, or on a large cutting board. Then process, blend, pulverize or chop the ingredients until they reach your desired texture – smooth and uniform, chunky, somewhere in between.
  2. ADD oil to the chopped mixture slowly and while stirring, to incorporate it. If the ingredients were hand chopped, put them in a bowl or jar before adding the oil. More oil will make the consistency thinner and more liquid, less oil will result in a spreadable paste. I prefer to add less oil when I make the pesto and then thin some out with extra oil depending on how I’m using it.

    How to use up all this pesto? Aside from pasta, my favorite options are spread on toast or sandwiches, as a sauce for roasted meat or savory pastries, and as a dip for vegetables or crackers.
Some ideas to get you started:

Sundried Tomato Pesto
Sundried tomatoes packed in oil
Red wine vinegar
Optional: salt-packed capers, rinsed and drained
About ¼ cup of oil (the tomatoes provide some of their own oil so less is needed)

Pea Pesto
Pea, fresh or frozen-and-defrosted
Lemon juice
Pamesan cheese
Optional: lemon zest
About ½ cup of oil to make a pourable sauce

Cilantro Pesto
Lime Juice
Pepitas or roasted Sunflower Seeds
Optional: hot sauce
About ⅓ cup of oil


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