Herbal Pesto (and Pistou) Recipe

Our family loves eating herbal pestos. Several years ago we branched out from basil and started making pesto with new herbs. That exploration has opened up a lot of fun and new ways to cook the various herbs that grow abundantly in our garden.

Opening up pesto to other herbs has also allowed us to enjoy fresh pesto before basil has reached full stride. It also allows us to enjoy large amounts of pesto in the years when our basil hasn’t done so well due to weather or seed starting issues.

Our family is exploring new flavors in different ways. Our toddler son loves eating herbal pesto cooked into rice and it couldn’t make me happier! When we ask if he want’s some more “green rice” he nods enthusiastically.

Perhaps the best thing about herbal pesto is that it is a tasty way to pack more green nutrition into our diet. With herbal pestos we have a fun and easy way to add more diversity of plants and nutrients into our meals.

Pesto and Pistou

You are likely already familiar with pesto, which is typically a thick green sauce, or paste, made from Genovese basil leaves, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, hard cheese and salt. Pesto originated in Italy and is most often cooked with pasta noodles.

Pesto translates to “to pound” or “to crush”. The word has its origins from Latin pistāre which means “to crush”.

Traditionally, the ingredients were crushed or pulverized using a mortar and pestle. Today a food processor or blender is more often used, speeding up the process.

Pistou is a French version of pesto. The main difference being that Pistou lacks the cheese and nut components and is most often added to soup as a condiment.

Pistou is a typical condiment from the Provence region of France most often associated with the Provençal dish soupe au pistou, which resembles minestrone and may include white beans, green beans, tomatoes, summer squash, potatoes, and pasta. The pistou is incorporated into the soup just before serving.

Pistou, Wikipedia

The translation of pistou is identical with pesto. Pistou means “to pound” or “to crush” in French.

While both pesto and pistou are traditionally pounded and made with basil and olive oil, the subtle distinctions are interesting to us because it gives us clues as to how we can make our own local cultural variations of pesto and how we can prepare the sauce in different ways.

Outside of Italy, sometimes, almond, Brazil, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, pecan, pistachio, walnut, or even peanuts are used instead of pine nuts, and sometimes coriander, dill, kale, mint, parsley, rocket, spinach, or wild garlic leaves are mixed in with the basil leaves.

Pesto, Wikipedia

As modern homesteaders defining our own homestead culture, we are learning that regional and local ingredients are more special, nutritious and sustainable than always importing an ingredient just because that is how we were told to cook a recipe. And no ingredient is more local than what we harvest in our own garden.

And while we truly love basil, let’s liberate our homestead pestos to include any herb, any nut or seed and any cheese of our choosing!

Garlic scape pistou — just herb and oil.

Herbal Pesto

Let’s explore some new pesto-bilities! Our family loves to eat basil and its definitely growing in our garden most years. But we also love many other herbs and plants.

Being able to adapt a recipe to what is growing abundantly is a wonderful skill for any homestead gardener-cook. Its also really fun to have diversity in our diet and on our plates throughout the year.

There is really no limit to what you can make pesto with, except for what’s growing in your garden and what your family’s flavor preferences happen to be.

Here are some ideas of herbs that you can use in your homestead pestos. We’ve tried most of them and they are all good in their own ways!

  • Garlic scapes
  • Dandelion leaves
  • Chickweed leaves & stems
  • French Sorrel leaves
  • Kale Leaves
  • Plantain leaves
  • Stinging Nettle leaves & young tender tops
  • Cilantro leaves & stems
  • Oregano leaves
  • Fennel leaves/fronds
  • Sage leaves
  • Mint leaves
  • Parsley leaves & tender stems
  • Tarragon
Garlic scapes, roughly chopped and ready for pesto making.

Herbal Pesto Recipe

  • 3 – 4 cups packed herb leaves, roughly chopped (or finely if fibrous)
  • 2/3 – 1 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 4-8 cloves garlic (optional)
  • 2 Tablespoons of your favorite homestead herbal vinegar (optional)
  • 1/2 – 1 cup cubed hard cheese (optional)
  • 1/3 – 2/3 cup nuts or seeds of choice, pre-roasted or toasted (optional)
  • Salt to taste

Combine all of the ingredients into your food processor and blend until everything is finely chopped and uniform into a thick paste. If the herbs are dry add more olive oil until it becomes a paste.

Taste and adjust or add additional amounts of any of the ingredients until you are happy with the flavor.

Congratulations! You now have herbal pesto ready for a meal. It’s that easy!


  • Every ingredient except for the herb is optional.
  • The ratios of every ingredient are approximate and you can adjust each one to your family’s taste and preference.
  • Pesto doesn’t need to include expensive pine nuts. Pesto made with any nuts or seeds can taste delicious! We love making pesto with walnuts, pumpkin seeds, almonds and sunflower seeds. Lately we’ve been making pesto with walnuts because we buy them from a local homesteader.
  • The vinegar can also be substituted for another acid like lemon juice. The acid is sometimes included to preserve the bright green color. We often omit this ingredient and don’t find it necessary, but we use one of our homemade herbal vinegars when we do include an acid.
I like to fill the food processor with herbs, pour in some oil and chop. Then when the mass shrinks down I add the nuts, cheese and salt. This way I can fit a bit more herbs into the mix when doing large batches.

To Measure or Not

Here’s a secret: I actually don’t measure any ingredients when I make pesto. I measure by feel and touch. I measure by my senses and appreciation for each unique ingredient.

That means each pesto turns out a little different. Sometimes its a bit more oily and sometimes its less oily. Sometimes its creamier or nuttier. Sometimes its darker and more herbaceous.

In fact I often cook without measurements, but with especially so with pestos because there’s no wrong way to do it. With each herb having different flavors, with each meal having a different recipe, with every family having different preferences only the cook and the eater can truly know the right ratio of each ingredient.

For example, if the sauce is too dry I’ll add some more olive oil. But your family might like it drier and less oily! That’s why the recipe above includes some ranges, to account for your own personal preferences.

If that sounds good to you, cast away the recipe and add things by the handfuls until it tastes or looks right to you! If that thought is scary, then use the recipe above knowing that its going to taste amazing.

However you do it, its going to end up delicious!

Chickweed pesto in rice with fish.

Simple vs Combinations

Some people like to combine two or more herbs together in one pesto recipe. Our family prefers simple pestos, as in one herb per pesto sauce. That’s our preference because we like to enjoy the flavor of the individual herbs.

Having simple pestos on hand allow us to pick and choose based on our preference for each meal. We also prefer simple pestos because we can get to know the flavor and characteristics of each individual herb separately and continue our relationship with that plant.

On the other hand combinations can be helpful if you only have a small amount of each herb to work with, if you want to add just a touch of a strong flavor like mint to a milder flavor, or if you want to tone down an herb’s bitter flavor with a less bitter companion.

Chickweed pistou.
Chickweed pesto ready to use in meals. The color lightened up a bit after adding the cheese and nuts, compared to the photo above.

Preparing Fibrous Herbs

Pesto is pretty straightforward with the chop and blend with oil. Nonetheless each herb has its own characteristics. Some herbs are more fibrous than others and require some finer chopping before blending so that you save your blender’s or food processor’s motor.

Basically we want to pre-chop fibrous herbs fairly finely across the fibers (1/4 – 1/2″ maximum is what I prefer) to prevent the long fibers from wrapping around a blender blade and stopping the fun. I’ll admit I’ve burnt a few blender motors this way making pestos and tinctures.

This is how we work with a few of the herbs with regards to bitterness or fibrousness, which you can extend to any other herb of your choosing that has stronger fibers.

Garlic Scapes
Garlic scape pesto is delicious! It is spicy like garlic but also much sweeter and greener. Exclude the long, flatter tip of the scape which is a bit more fibrous and rough chop the rest.

Plantain leaves are fibrous with regards to the long ribs extending through the entire leaf. Chop the plantain leaves fairly finely across the ribs so that your food processor doesn’t get stuck.

I also chop chickweed fairly finely across the stems so that the long stems don’t get stuck in our food processor.

Small Leafed Herbs
For leafy herbs you may harvest with the whole stem, such as the oregano or lemon balm below. In that case strip the leaves from the tougher stem before blending them. No pre-chopping is necessary with smaller leaves as long as you include the tough stems.

Pistous ready to go into the freezer. Left to right: Garlic scape, chickweed, oregano, plantain and lemon balm.

Freezing Herbal Pesto & Pistou

We often make large-ish batches of herbal pistou throughout the growing season when green leaves and sunshine are abundant. We eat some and freeze the rest in half pint, pint or quart sized containers (leaving a bit of headroom for expansion) for convenient portions that we can use throughout the winter and early spring.

When storing the pesto for later use, the freezing process will help to soften or break down a plant’s cell walls so that our digestive systems can access the nutrition more readily.

Pesto is delicious with nuts and cheese, but more often than not we leave those ingredients when freezing and simply make pistou (just herb and oil) for freezing.

  • Nuts are shelf stable and so there is no need to take up that extra room in the freezer.
  • Cheese and milk are available year round.
  • Garlic can also be added at the time of making a meal because garlic stores very well.
  • We aren’t concerned with adding an acid to preserve the color, like herbal vinegar or lemon juice, because freezing halts the oxidation. Those can also be added after thawing
  • Salt can also be added at the time of meal preparation so its not critical to add before freezing.

The advantage of freezing pistou is that we have more flexibility in how we may prepare our meals throughout the winter. For example Ann loves to add pistou into soups and stews based on rich bone broth for additional green nutrition. In those cases we don’t want the cheese or nuts.

Truth be told, the biggest advantage to leaving out the nuts and cheese is that we are busy homesteaders and when its time to preserve food from the garden we often have 20 other things going on at the same time. So being able to quickly blend and freeze oil and herbs helps reduce the friction of storing the harvest.

When freezing pesto or pistou, the most important thing for us is preserving those nutritional greens for later use. When we defrost a pistou and want to transform it into a pesto we can easily grate some cheese and pound some nuts in our mortar and pestle or in a food processor and incorporate into the meal.

Plantain leaf pistou prior to freezing.

Working With Stronger Flavors

Some herbs have stronger flavors than others. For example:

  • Pestos made from bitter herbs like dandelion and chicory might be fairly bitter if not harvested early or late enough in the season. Its better to harvest leaves for pesto in the early spring or late fall when leaves are far less bitter.
  • Sorrel pesto might be too sour when using large amounts because of the oxalic acid.
  • Pestos made from herbs in the mint family like oregano might be fairly strong for your palette.

Here are some ways to work with the stronger flavors in your pestos:

  • Sample the pesto and if the greens are still too bitter for your taste buds try adding the cheese and nuts if you haven’t already.
  • Try combining the bitter herb with some non-bitter herbs to lessen the intensity.
  • Try combining some sweeter flavors like chopped up dried tomatoes (or other dried fruit) or sweet peppers either in the pesto directly as you blend it or in the meal mixed in with the pesto.
  • Sometimes cooking the pesto longer can reduce some of the strong flavor. For example we make sure to cook our sorrel pesto because we don’t want to consume too much oxalic acid. Cooking the sorrel lowers the level of oxalic acid and reduces the sourness to a palatable level so that we can still enjoy large amounts of the herb.
Oregano pistou.

Cooking with Pesto

My favorite thing about pesto is how easy it is. Our family can enjoy an amazingly delicious meal that is thrown together at the last minute, and yet still come away wonderfully nourished from a rich array of minerals and nutrients contained in our garden herbs.

Chickweed pesto with roasted potatoes.

Combine with Carbohydrates

At the very basic level of preparation you take your pesto and combine it with a carbohydrate. Then you have carbohydrates, proteins from nuts/seeds and cheese, fat from the oil and cheese and abundant minerals from the herbs. That’s already shaping up to be quite a well rounded meal!

Chickweed pesto with rice and fried sardines with garlic.

Meal Ideas

When cooking with pesto we are only limited by our imagination! Unlimited new possibilities await us when we have herbal pestos at our side. Here are some tried and true options for you to play around with.

Pasta. The traditional way of adding pesto to a pasta is one of our favorites of course. Stir the pesto in with the pasta toward the end of the cooking and keep on low heat, stirring for another 10-15 minutes before serving.

Rice. Mix heaping spoonfuls of the pesto into hot rice to liven it up and add extra nourishment.

Roasted Potatoes. We also like to add pesto to potatoes that have been cubed or sliced and baked to a golden crispy perfection. After removing the potatoes from the oven, toss them in a luxurious amount of pesto. You can do the same with any other root vegetable that you might like to add some pizazz to.

Mashed Potatoes. Try replacing the olive oil with melted butter and add the herbal pesto to your mashed potatoes to mix things up, turn them green and add a kick of nutrients and fun!

Pizza. Pesto is delicious as a sauce on pizza in place of tomato sauce. You could also easily use pistou and add cheese and proteins of choice as separate layers.

Casserole. Mix pesto into your casserole of choice before baking!

Omelette. Add a thick layer of pesto/pistou in the middle of your omelette with the cheese.

Bread. Spread a thick layer of pesto on your toast or bread to make it more interesting and nutritious.

Soup and Stew. Add pistou to your soups or stew to increase the nourishment and flavor profile.

Our toddler loved eating “green rice” and chose it over the plain rice!

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