Pesto: A Waft of the Italian Riviera

Livornese pesto, the world's best, adds a bold, refreshing flavor to simple dishes.

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Roast chicken breast in lemon pesto marinade.
Roast chicken breast in lemon pesto marinade.Credit: Limor Laniado Tiroche

The basil fields that surround the city of Genoa are a source of pride for the inhabitants of the Italian Riviera. The fragrance of the herb wafts to every corner of the city from the expansive fields that are filled with it. All these many plants are intended for one purpose only: the preparation of the local pesto, which is considered the best in the world. Livornese pesto contains fresh basil leaves (which they take care to pick just before preparing the pesto), a handful of pine nuts, pecorino or parmesan cheese and highest-quality olive oil. All these ingredients are ground together in a pestle until they form a thick paste with a strong flavor and color.

The pesto is stored in small glass jars, covered in a thick layer of olive oil to keep it from becoming oxygenated.

The pesto can be used as a wonderful, healthy spread in sandwiches or as a marinade for beef or fish on the grill. When it is used in cooking, it should be diluted slightly so as to keep its strong and slightly bitter flavor from overpowering the dish. In spaghetti, it should be diluted with olive oil and white wine, and in lasagna, it should be diluted with ricotta cheese.

Parsley, coriander, spearmint or roquette can also be used to make a delicious pesto, and the pine nuts can be replaced with other nuts such as hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, almonds, sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds.

Roast chicken breast in lemon pesto marinade


2 chicken breasts, butterflied

For the pesto:

Leaves of a large bundle of basil

1 lemon

2 tablespoons of blanched almond flakes or sliced almonds

4 garlic cloves, peeled

1/4 hot green pepper

1/2 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons water

Preparing the pesto:

Using a small, sharp knife, peel the lemon until none of the white pith remains. Chop and remove the seeds. Place all the ingredients in a food-processor bowl and grind to a thin paste.

Cut the chicken breast in half, and remove all fat and tendons. Using a small, sharp knife, make shallow cuts along its width. Place in a bowl, add the pesto and knead it in well. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Heat a skillet (without oil) until it is almost smoking, or start a charcoal grill, and roast the chicken breast well on both sides until it is brown and well done. Place cherry tomatoes cut in half, sliced squash, red onion or any other vegetable you prefer between the halves of the chicken breast. Slice thinly and eat with a salad and tehini, or place in a hot tortilla with salsa made from roasted tomatoes, basil, hot green pepper and yogurt, and roll together. Serves 4.

Whole-grain rice with coriander pesto and pistachios

Ingredients for the pesto:

Leaves of a large bundle of coriander leaves

2 tablespoons pistachios or walnuts, Brazil nuts or pine nuts

4 garlic cloves, peeled

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons water

Ingredients for the rice:

1 cup whole-grain Basmati rice, soaked in water overnight

2 tablespoons oil

3 tablespoons pistachio pesto or prepared pesto with a gentle flavor

1 2/3 cups (420 ml.) boiling water

Lemon slices for serving

Preparing the pesto:

Place all the ingredients in a food-processor bowl and grind to a thick paste. If the pesto comes out too thick, add a drop of water or olive oil.

Pour the oil into a medium-size saucepan. Drain and add the rice and pesto, saute while stirring over a medium flame for one minute and add the salt. Add the boiling water, cover, reduce flame to the minimum and cook for 45 minutes. Remove from heat and keep covered for another 20 minutes. Serve with some more fresh pesto and lemon slices. Serves 4.

Spaghettini in cashew pesto with zucchini and goat cheese

500 grams spaghettini, al dente

1/3 cup bread crumbs

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 zucchinis, thinly sliced lengthwise

6 garlic cloves, thinly chopped

1/2 cup white wine

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground

Dried chili flakes to taste

100 grams soft goat or feta cheese

For the pesto:

Leaves of a large bundle of basil

2 tablespoons cashews or pine nuts

1 tablespoon parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated

4 garlic cloves, peeled

1 tablespoon lemon zest, grated

1/4 tablespoon salt

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon water

Place all the ingredients in a food-processor bowl and grind to a thick paste. If the pesto comes out too thick, add a drop of water or olive oil. Heat a small skillet without oil and toast the bread crumbs over a low flame, stirring constantly, until golden-brown, and transfer to a plate. Place the zucchini strips in a bowl, pour the boiling water over them, wait one minute and strain. Heat a large skillet or wok with olive oil and saute the garlic for 30 seconds. Add six tablespoons of pesto and saute, constantly stirring, for two minutes. Add the squash, wine and spices, bring to a boil and cook for one minute. Add the pasta, mix well over a large flame for two minutes, and turn off the flame. Add the cheese, mix lightly, garnish with bread crumbs and serve right away. Serves 4 to 6.

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