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This Is Not a Pesto

But it's great with tomatoes or pasta, and a glass of rosé
Photo by: Harvey Steiman
Pair this beautiful summer plate of mozzarella, tomatoes and Not Pesto with a crisp rosé.

Posted: Jul 16, 2014 10:21am ET

If you're like me, when summer gives us ripe heirloom tomatoes and a profusion of basil, lunch often combines the two with fresh mozzarella or burrata and a drizzle of peppery extra-virgin olive oil for Caprese salad. Add a country bread with crunchy crust and all it needs is a glass of crisp, cool wine to complete the picture.

Basil leaves, picked off the stems, and olive oil are two of the critical components in pesto, the sauce of the Italian region Liguria, where it shines on pasta and is nothing like the chopped-green salsa we see so often in the U.S. In Liguria pesto is smooth and creamy, a solid emerald-green from being pounded to kingdom come with a mortar and pestle. If made in a blender or a food processor, cooks keep the ingredients spinning until they achieve something close to that texture.

A superfine puree of pine nuts, pounded or blended with the other ingredients, achieves an extra level of creaminess in pesto. Although the classic sauce also includes garlic, I find the flavor intrusive with fresh tomatoes, so I came up with this variation. I call it "Not Pesto." Spooned and spread onto a plate, with slices of yellow, orange or red tomatoes on top, it looks spectacular.

I make a batch and keep it in the refrigerator for a few days, hard to do with fresh whole basil leaves, which can wilt pretty quickly once picked from their stems. Then it's quick to slice a few tomatoes and place them on the sauce—or use the sauce with grilled chicken or pork chops, or on a sandwich, with or without mozzarella.

The sauce's flavors also love a light, frisky rosé. Summer on the table.

Not Pesto

This cold sauce can be used in place of pesto on pasta, but it's especially good spread on a plate under sliced heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella or burrata, or as a sandwich spread. Dry rosé wines love these flavors.

• 1 cup (packed) basil leaves
• 1/4 cup pine nuts
• 1/2 avocado
• Juice of 1 lime or 1/2 lemon
• 1/3 to 2/3 cup water
• 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• Salt to taste
• Agave nectar to taste

Place the basil leaves in a blender. Toast the pine nuts in a skillet over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Scoop out the avocado and discard the shell. Add the pine nuts, avocado, citrus juice and 1/3 cup water to the blender. Close the blender and start it on a medium speed. Stop the blender and scrape down the sides until the leaves are totally absorbed into a smooth puree, adding more water as necessary to get a smooth, thick sauce.

Add salt to taste and just enough agave nectar to balance the tartness of the citrus, about 1 to 2 teaspoons. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

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