EMFV’s Taste Test Pesto

— Written By and last updated by Meghan Lassiter
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Our Extension Master Food Volunteers (EMFV) recently explored the different tastes of basil. The EMFVs partnered with the Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteers to evaluate several basil cultivars at the Extension Demonstration Kitchen in Bolivia.Two people with arms deep in a basil plant.

This was part of an ongoing research project being conducted by the Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteers, North Carolina State University, and N.C. Cooperative Extension Consumer Horticulture Agents. The Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteers planted a test plot of basil this past June. This plot contains six different cultivars. One of the varieties is the classic Genovese basil and the others are experimental.

Basil tends to be susceptible to Basil Downy Mildew. One of the goals of this study is to assess the resistance of these cultivars to this mildew. So far, zero Basil Downy Mildew has been found on the Brunswick County plot. Additionally, each cultivar is evaluated for aroma, taste and appearance. It has been tested alone, with a traditional Caprese Salad (with tomatoes and mozzarella) and now the EMFVs have made it into a classic pesto.

While the cultivars had similarities to each other, there were also some distinct differences. The size and shapes of the leaves vary. Some had more aroma. Others had very observable flavor differences. The appearance, aroma, and flavor were ranked using a scale of “undesirable,” “somewhat desirable” and “most desirable.” It was interesting to see how differently each individual rated these characteristics. The research results won’t be available until later this fall.

The EMFV carefully picked the basil assuring that they kept the cultivars separate. They also used the same recipe to insure consistency. Traditionally, pesto is made with pine nuts, but they can be pricey. The recipe used for the taste testing contained walnuts instead. When making pesto, you can substitute other nuts such as cashews, almonds, pecans, or pine nuts as you like or have on hand.

Basil is the basic ingredient in this pesto, but other herbs or leafy greens such as parsley, kale, or spinach could be substituted for all or part of the basil. I like to always include some basil to get that distinct flavor when I make
pesto, but it is not necessary.

Basil Walnut Pesto

½ cup olive oil (divided, plus more if needed)
4 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup parmesan cheese, shredded
½ cup unsalted walnuts
1 lemon, juiced (or 3 Tablespoons bottled lemon juice)
Zest from one lemon (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Wash hands and disinfect surfaces before beginning. In a blender or
    food processor, add half the basil leaves and ¼ cup of olive oil.
  2. Blend until finely chopped. Add the other half of the basil leaves and continue to blend. Add the remaining olive oil as needed, until all the basil has been blended.
  3. Add the nuts, garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper, and
    blend until smooth.
  4. Add the parmesan cheese and blend again until a coarse sauce is
    achieved. Taste and add any additional lemon juice or salt and
    pepper, if desired.
  5. Blend one last time until all ingredients are well combined. Store in an air-tight container for up to four days.

The pesto was evaluated alone and with pita chips. It could be used on sandwiches, pasta, pizza, and vegetables or as a sauce for fish or chicken.

The Extension Master Food Volunteers (EMFVs) work with the Family and Consumer Science Extension staff to conduct educational programs in the area of food, nutrition, and food safety. There are currently nine EMFVs that
volunteer for N.C. Cooperative Extension in both Brunswick and New Hanover counties.

For information on becoming an EMFV contact Megan Lassiter at the N.C. Cooperative Extension in Brunswick County.

A special thank you to Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteers Robin Murray and Steve Anderman and Krystyna Ochota, Consumer Horticulture Program Assistant and Master Gardener Coordinator for Brunswick County, for their assistance with this taste testing.

Cheryle Syracuse wrote this article and more similar ones for the Family and Consumer Sciences Column in the Brunswick Beacon. Syracuse is an FCS team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, 910.253.2610 or by email at cheryle_syracuse@ncsu.edu.