Mint, Sage, and Rosemary Pesto Sauce

In 1994, Judy Rogers, the chef and co-owner of my favorite San Francisco daily hang-out (with the best margaritas in California), wrote me a note saying “I love the mint pesto. MAY I STEAL IT?”

All pestos, whether basil, rose petal, mint, artichoke (Jerusalem or globe), cilantro, or nasturtium flower, with nuts or without, can be made (and certainly made faster) in the food processor. However, there are advantages to using a mortar and pestle. The gentler action of this hand-process produces better flavors and brighter colors, each being an indication of the other. In addition, a pesto made in a mortar is less likely to separate while you are making it and will not break later. Please never be tempted to use a blender, which will oxidize and thus mar the delicate flavors and colors of the leaves or vegetables you are using.

Traditional basil pesto contains Parmesan cheese. I prefer ewe’s milk cheese, and also the whole family of manchegos—their mild and subtle flavors are a perfect complement to fresh herb pestos.

When making pesto to serve with pasta, hearty vegetable soups, and baked potatoes, use the cheese. For saucing fish dishes, omit the cheese (as here), using breadcrumbs instead of Parmesan.

Do not try to force the proportions. Sometimes a little more or less oil will be just what you need.

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  • 2 cups fresh mint (leaves only)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh sage leaves
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons fresh white breadcrumbs
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 cup extra virgin light yellow olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground coarse black pepper


Put the mint, sage, and rosemary in a mortar (or food processor, but then add 2 tablespoons of water as well) with the garlic, breadcrumbs, lemon juice and zest. Grind or process until smooth. Add the olive oil a little at a time, as if making mayonnaise, until the puree is the consistency of creamed butter. Add half the salt and pepper. Taste it, and add more if needed.


Cilantro pesto mixed with lightly toasted walnuts, salted anchovy and potato; or a parsley and Meyer lemon pesto with tarragon and orange zest.