Fiery Chile Pesto

Fiery Chile Pesto
Fiery Chile Pesto

Pesto, with its roots in Italy, is traditionally made with fresh basil, which grows in abundance on the Italian hillsides. Pesto is a bit of alchemy; it is garlicky, herb-laden flavor packet that takes simple ingredients and makes them expansively delicious. And, it is wide open to revisions and interpretations. We decided to take our pesto to the American Southwest, using chiles for the main body of the sauce instead of basil. Smoked Serrano peppers deliver medium heat with lots of citrus-y and fruity flavors; we countered those with mild, sweet dried Anaheim chiles. If you’re worried about rehydrating chiles for the first time, have no fear! It’s super easy and we’ve got a video to walk you through it.

To add body to our sauce, we chose pistachio nuts. They have a great, smooth texture, and their natural fats and sweetness help balance out the smoky heat of the chile peppers. To help keep the pesto from being overly salty, try to find unsalted pistachios, which are increasingly available in grocery stores. If you can’t find them, put the pistachio meats in a towel and sort of rub them around. This can help pull the salt off the nuts. To help enhance their nutty flavor, you can toast the pistachios, whether they are salted or not. Put them in a dry pan and swirl them around over heat until you smell their fragrance start to rise, and the sides start to show a bit of brown. Remove them off the heat and into a separate dish; leaving them in a hot pan allows the residual heat to continue cooking the pistachios, which can cause them to burn even if they’re off the stove.

We love Parmesan cheese here, with its nutty taste and pungent flavor profile, but you could use any hard, grate-able cheese you like. Cotija cheese will maintain the Southwest vibe, but you could choose asiago, pecorino, even ricotta salata. Try to avoid hard cheeses that are grainy or crystalline, like Grana Padano. While it is delicious, it can impart an odd texture to the pesto. Cheeses have a tendency to be salty so, again, keep this in mind as you flavor your pesto.

Once you’ve added the cheese, mix in garlic and cilantro for vibrancy. Parsley can be used here instead of cilantro if you prefer, but cilantro brings a more recognizable Mexican flavor. Add lime juice for palate-lifting acidity and an additional burst of freshness. When you drizzle olive oil into the pesto, keep the blades moving to give it a chance to fully incorporate with the other ingredients. Add water to your mix if it’s too thick and doesn’t blend easily; if yours is moving along nicely, leave it out. Sample your pesto and adjust salt to taste. This pesto goes perfectly with our Grilled Salmon Tacos, but you could also dollop it on top of some pasta or spread it over a grilled cheese.

 Print Recipe

Prep Time: 20 min.
Cooking Time: 0 min.
Category: Sauces
  1. Boil some hot water. Place chiles in a heat proof container, like a stainless steel bowl. Pour boiling water over chiles and cover with plastic wrap; let sit for 15 minutes. Drain chiles, then remove seeds and membranes and roughly chop. 
  2. All all ingredients into a food processor, except olive oil. Blend until smooth. Slowly drizzle in olive oil while processing. Thin out with water if necessary.
  3. Pesto can be stored up to a week in an airtight container.