With rich flavor and a hint of lemon, Lemon Balm Pesto is delicious on pizza, atop meats–or try this Shrimp Pasta option.
Pesto is the darling of fall cooking. Fragrant and herbal with a touch of umami, it can be the star of the show on pasta. Or best supporting actor in so many other recipes. Yes, lots of dishes, from soup to pasta or pizza, have benefited from its flavor bonanza.
Even better, pesto adapts beautifully to the use of many different herbs and greens. From the classic basil to the pungent arugula to the frugal carrot tops, it’s tough to make a bad pesto. But I think that Lemon Balm Pesto is one of the best.
Herbal with lemon overtones, it’s a special delight with foods that play well with lemon–seafood in particular.
What is Lemon Balm?
Per Wikipedia “Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a perennial herbaceous plant in the mint family and native to south-central Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, Iran, and Central Asia, but now naturalized elsewhere. It grows to a maximum height of 1 m (3 ft 3 in). The leaves have a mild lemon scent.”
The lemon flavor is notable and, in fact, I started growing it originally because organic lemons were hard to find that year.
Lemon balm has a sweet, herbal, lemony taste and aroma and some people believe it has medicinal properties. While claims like promoting sleep and easing anxiety have been made (disclaimer: this is not meant to serve as medical advice), I am after it for it’s flavor.
The plant is pretty carefree–at least in Wisconsin. It spreads by self-seeding rather than underground roots like mint though in some areas container growing is recommended to avoid spread.
For me it spreads at what I would call medium speed. This basically means it isn’t going to die on me if ignored (which is always, unless I’m cutting it), I don’t need to ration it too much, and I don’t need to dig up a lot of new plants that are encroaching on the lawn or raspberries.
I think it’s a winner!
Why You’ll Love This!
Tasty and Unique. Lemon Balm Pesto brings delicate lemon and herbal flavors to an already tasty dish. I personally don’t believe that all pesto is created equal and this is one of my favorites.
Versatile. Used to enliven all kinds of foods from pastas to pizzas and more, you’ll find plenty of use for this recipe!
Grow Your Own. This year I grew both the garlic and lemon balm in this. And the cheese came from a couple towns over. Now if we could just get olives for the olive oil to grow in Wisconsin!
What You’ll Need
For basic pesto:
- Fresh lemon balm leaves. Provides flavor and volume.
- Olive oil. Adds richness and liquid.
- White wine. You can substitute diluted lemon juice to go alcohol free.
- Garlic cloves. Adds flavor.
- Nuts. Adds richness and flavor. Pine nuts are traditional but walnuts are popular and many nuts will work. See tips below.
- Salt. Enhances flavors.
- Parmesan cheese. Adds richness and flavor.
If serving with pasta and shrimp:
- Shrimp. Adds protein and flavor.
- Oil. To sautee shrimp
- Whole wheat pasta. Healthier, but you can use regular pasta. I especially like angel hair pasta with this
- A food processor or blender is needed to puree and mix the ingredients.
Step by Step Directions
Combine the pesto ingredients except the Parmesan in a food processor. Process until finely minced and well combined. Stir in the Parmesan.
If making shrimp with pasta option, cook pasta according to package directions then drain, saving a cup of the cooking water.
Sautee the peeled shrimp in oil a small skillet or saucepan stirring occasionally until shrimp are cooked through. Stir in the pesto and enough of the reserved cooking liquid to make a nice sauce.
Bring back to warm but do not let boil or the cheese may separate. Serve immediately over pasta or stir into pasta.
How to Serve
My first choice with Lemon Balm Pesto is to go all the way and serve it as Lemon Balm & Shrimp Pasta. But since pesto is so useful I’ll often make it alone to use in other dishes or to freeze.
The shrimp pasta version makes a delicious dinner or indulgent lunch. I might serve it with a nice white wine or lemon fizzy water and a Spicy Italian Salad.
Lemon Balm Pesto alone can be use the same way you use any pesto. And if your dish will benefit from some lemon overtones (like shrimp pasta), all the better.
Now truthfully, I consider pesto almost as essential as ketchup! Although it was originally used primarily for pastas, now it’s used for so much more! Top meats, chicken or fish, add it to salad dressing or even omelets like my Roasted Tomato Omelet with Spinach, Pesto & Cheese
And I’ve mixed it with mayonnaise for a delicious sandwich topping.
How do I make this vegan? Parmesan cheese is the only animal product in the pesto. It can actually be omitted since the nuts provide enough creaminess to the recipe. Or you can substitute your favorite vegan cheese or even some nutritional yeast. If you want to make the pasta, the shrimp can simply be omitted.
Can I make pesto without lemon balm? Of course! Basil is the classic pesto herb and cilantro is another of my favorites! In years when the arugula is extra abundant, some of that will become freezer pesto in my house! I’ve even heard of people using carrot tops (which I recently used for my smoky greens 😊 )
Freezing and Reheating Tips
This makes a small batch so unless you double it you probably won’t have leftovers. But any extra Lemon Balm Pesto can be stored in the refrigerator and used within a week or so. If you add the shrimp, use it up within a couple days. Just reheat it slowly and stir regularly to keep the cheese from separating.
Pesto (alone) freezes beautifully. I always make a lot in summer and fall to freeze for winter. I like to use 4-ounce or 8-ounce straight-sided canning jars which are freezer safe. For more information and a list of recommended containers take a look at this article at Filmore Container.
One other practical tip I have is that I sometimes omit the Parmesan when I freeze pesto (in that case I note it on the label). This helps if you need to heat and thaw the pesto in a hurry since you don’t need to worry about the cheese separating.
Tips & FAQs
As I mentioned this makes really just the four servings. So if you are hosting a crowd or want to freeze pesto for winter, double (maybe quadruple) the quantities.
Italians cooking norms say to avoid cheese with seafood on the theory it can overwhelm. But I figure that in this recipe the garlic and the lemon balm give the Parmesan so much competition, it’s okay–and I might even grate a little more cheese on top of the pasta. But if you’re a purist just skip the shrimp.
What type of nut is best for pesto? Pine nuts are the classic pesto nut and they are absolutely delicious. But I think that the best nut for pesto is the one you already have. This was made with pecans and I even made pesto with Brazil nuts one year! If there’s one thing the pandemic taught me, it’s that substitution can practical and tasty.
Lemon Balm Pesto (with Optional Shrimp Pasta)
- 2 cups of lemon balm leaves (medium packed ,4-5 longer stems)
- ½ cup olive oil
- ¼ cup white wine (for alcohol free, use 2 T lemon juice and 2 T water)
- 4 garlic cloves
- ¼ cup walnuts (or pinenuts or other nut of your choice)
- ½ t salt (or to taste)
- 2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup)
With Pasta and Shrimp
- 8 oz whole wheat pasta
- 12 ounces of shrimp (peeled)
- 1-2 Tablespoons olive oil
- reserved pasta water
- Combine the pesto ingredients except the parmesan in a food processor or blender. Process until finely minced and well combined. Stir in the Parmesan.
- If doing shrimp with pasta, cook pasta according to package directions then drain, saving a cup of the cooking water. Sautee the peeled shrimp in oil a small skillet or saucepan stirring occasionally until shrimp are cooked through. Stir in the pesto and enough of the reserved cooking liquid to make a nice sauce. Bring back to warm but do not let boil or the cheese may separate. Serve immediately over pasta or stir into pasta.
Updated from June 20, 2016.
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