The secret is out: Making pesto, that trendy-sounding Mediterranean condiment, is as easy as counting to five. Using a handful of fresh, high-quality ingredients, a blender and a pinch of imagination, in short order you'll have a snappy pesto—from the Italian pestare, to pound or crush—that will make any dish sing with flavor.

"Pestos go with everything," says Lucinda Hutson, author of The Herb Garden Cookbook (Gulf Publishing). "They're the perfect vehicle to deliver intense, concentrated taste to pastas, veggies, salad dressings, meats, you name it."

A few additions—citrus juices, various spices, kicky vegetables such as jalapeños and sun-dried tomatoes—will enliven any pesto, but the five primary players remain the same:

Herbs. Pesto's star ingredient, fresh herbs provide incomparable flavor, plus numerous vitamins and minerals. Their use in pesto is practically unlimited. "You can improvise with whatever herbs you've got available," says Hutson.

Garlic. Renowned for its heart-healthy and cancer-fighting properties, garlic is added to many pestos to achieve a robust, tangy bite.

Nuts. Velvety pine nuts are the traditional pesto favorite, but walnuts, almonds and pistachios also make strong partners. Used sparingly, the "good" fats found in nuts add rich taste without guilt.

Olive Oil Cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil is the only choice for pesto. Its smooth, fruity flavor enhances the other elements without overpowering their tastes.

Cheese Only the highest quality imported Italian cheeses, such as Parmesan, Romano and Asiago, should grace pesto. Added in small quantities, cheese provides luxurious taste and texture while binding together the remaining ingredients.

So start the countdown: If you've got five, you've got pesto.

Chicken Saltimbocca with Sage Pesto
Serves 4



Saltimbocca literally means "jump into the mouth," an apt description for this flavorful Italian entrée.

4 4-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to 1/2-inch thickness
4 very thin slices proscuitto or lean ham
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Sage Pesto

1/2 cup fresh sage
1/2 tablespoon pine nuts
1 small clove garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 350°. In food processor, blend sage, pine nuts, garlic, salt and pepper; add olive oil and process until smooth. Stir in 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese.

2. Spread thin layer of sage pesto on each chicken breast. Top with 1 thin slice proscuitto per breast. Roll, and secure with wooden toothpicks.

3. Combine breadcrumbs with parsley and 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese. In 3 separate shallow bowls, place breadcrumb mixture, egg whites and flour. Dip rolled breasts in flour mixture and shake to remove excess. Dip in egg whites, then in breadcrumb mixture to coat.

4. Place chicken in shallow baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake 40 minutes, until tender. Remove picks and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 299 calories
Fat: 8g
% fat calories: 24%
Cholesterol: 81mg
Carbohydrate: 17g
Protein: 39g

Basil Pesto
Makes 3/4 cup


A classic. Each ingredient can be increased or decreased to suit your taste. Basil pesto also freezes well, so make a bunch when basil is plentiful.

2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
2-4 cloves garlic, to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, preferably a mix

1. Place all ingredients except cheese in blender or food processor and process until smooth.

2. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl and stir in cheese. Serve, or refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 47
Fat: 4g
% fat calories: 78%
Cholesterol: 1mg
Carbohydrate: 1g
Protein: 2g

Oregano Pesto
Makes 1/2 cup


Excellent spread on pasta, baked chicken or added to soup for an extra burst of flavor.

1/2 cup fresh oregano
1/2 cup fresh basil
2 tablespoons fresh parsley
1/4 cup pistachio nuts
2-4 cloves garlic, to taste
3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, Romano or Asiago cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Place first 5 ingredients in blender or food processor and blend. Slowly add lemon juice and olive oil and blend until puréed.

2. Transfer mixture to medium bowl and stir in cheese; add salt to taste. Serve, or refrigerate for up to 5 days.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 68
Fat: 6g
% fat calories: 78%
Cholesterol: 2mg
Carbohydrate: 2g
Protein: 2g

Cilantro Pesto
Makes 3/4 cup


In addition to enhancing pasta, this new kid on the block can be spread over fish, added to fajitas or dolloped on baked or mashed potatoes.

1 1/2 cups fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems (2 bunches)
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup walnut pieces, lightly toasted
1 small jalapeño, halved and seeded
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or
Asiago cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1. Place first 6 ingredients in blender or food processor and blend.

2. Slowly add lemon juice, lime juice and oil, and process until well mixed. Serve, or refrigerate for up to 5 days.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 37
Fat: 3g
% fat calories: 74%
Cholesterol: 1mg
Carbohydrate: 1g
Protein: 2g

Crostini with Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto and Feta Cheese
Makes 12


These "little toasts" make an easy and elegant appetizer. Arrange around a beautiful bunch of grapes on a festive platter.

12 thin slices Italian country bread or French baguette
12 fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

3/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes (not packed in oil)
3-4 cloves garlic, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons walnut pieces, lightly toasted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 350° Soak dried tomatoes in very hot water until soft, 5­10 minutes; drain, reserving liquid. Place tomatoes and remaining pesto ingredients in blender or food processor and process until well mixed. If too thick, blend in a little hot water. Set aside.

2. On large baking sheet, toast bread slices for about 5 minutes or until crisp and golden, turning once. Remove from oven.

3. Spread each bread slice with tomato pesto; top with small amount of crumbled feta cheese and one small basil leaf. Serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 90
Fat: 5g
% fat calories: 47%
Cholesterol: 6mg
Carbohydrate: 9g
Protein: 4g