Get Saucy Series: Green Herb Sauces

Bright, fresh green herbs awaken our senses after a delicate spring. Grassy licorice basil, bright cilantro, earthy thyme, chives, mint and arugula all simply sing in beautiful herb sauces. Unlike many classic sauces that require precise measurements and techniques, herb sauces are forgiving and flexible. No basil? Toss in parsley. Has mint gone crazy in the garden? Use it in pesto. Add arugula to chimichurri for a peppery spin.

Hundreds of herb sauces exist, hailing from all parts of the world. Each country has its own form of green sauce. Salsa verde in Italy is made with parsley, capers, onion and anchovies. Sauce verte in France is essentially mayonnaise with the addition of tarragon. Argentina has chimichurri and Mexico’s salsa verde is primarily tomatillos, onion and lime.

Three classic herb sauces — pesto, chimichurri and gremolata — are versatile and tasty when added to grilled beef, fish, chicken, vegetables, pasta, beans, sandwiches and soup. These herb sauces require little work (simply whirl them together in a food processor or mortar and pestle) and are easily adaptable to personal taste. They also provide a dose of vitamin C from the greens and monounsaturated fat from the olive oil.

Arugula Pesto

Recipe by Jill Melton, MS, RD

Pesto is an herb sauce originated in Genoa, Italy. Italian for “pounded,” pesto purists make it with a mortar and pestle, but the food processor is much easier. Traditionally an uncooked sauce made of basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese, pesto can be made with almost any herb. Pesto is a rich herb sauce with the reliance on cheese, oil and nuts.

Almost any herb or green can be tossed into a pesto, including kale, basil, parsley, cilantro and arugula. Dollop this pesto in hot pasta, chicken chili, on top of beans, turkey roll-ups or in stuffed shells.


2 garlic cloves
½ cup toasted walnuts or pine nuts
4 cups packed arugula leaves
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup water
2 ounces finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
¼ teaspoon coarse salt


  1. Place garlic cloves in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
  2. Add the nuts and pulse.
  3. Add arugula and process until finely chopped.
  4. With machine running, slowly add the olive oil and water until a paste forms.
  5. Stir in the cheese and salt.

Serving Idea

Make Linguine with Arugula Pesto: Cook linguine until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup of cooking water. Toss 1 tablespoon arugula pesto with 1 cup hot pasta, incorporating pasta water until the desired consistency is reached.

Nutrition Information

Serves 20
Serving Size: 1 tablespoon

Calories 57; Total fat 5g; Sat. Fat 1g; Chol. 2mg; Sodium 69mg; Carb 1g; Fiber 0g; Sugars 0g; Protein 2g; Potassium 33mg; Phosphorus 33mg


Recipe by Jill Melton, MS, RD

This zesty green sauce comes from Argentina, where grilled meats are rarely served without it. With no cheese or nuts and a good dose of vinegar, it’s lighter than pesto. It also makes a great marinade and sauce for chicken, beef, fish and shellfish. Try chimichurri in place of cocktail sauce with cold shrimp. It takes well to any combination of herbs and spices. Fresh oregano and red pepper flakes are good additions.


1 cup basil leaves
1 cup parsley leaves
½ cup cilantro leaves
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, chopped; or ¼ cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup sherry or red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt


Combine all ingredients in a food processor. Process until smooth.

Nutrition Information

Serves 16
Serving Size: 1 tablespoon

Calories 44; Total fat 5g; Sat. Fat 1g; Chol. 0mg; Sodium 76mg; Carb. 1g; Fiber 0g; Sugars 0g; Protein 0g; Potassium 38mg; Phosphorus 6mg


Recipe by Jill Melton, MS, RD

Gremolata is not so much a sauce as it is a chopped-herb condiment. It’s made of grated lemon zest, finely chopped garlic and parsley. It is a traditional accompaniment to the Milanese braised veal shank dish osso buco alla Milanese, and brightens up steak, vegetables and beans. Add Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese and olive oil to serve with roast chicken.


1 cup loosely-packed parsley
1 clove garlic
2 lemons


  1. Finely chop parsley.
  2. With a microplane or fine grater, grate the garlic and then the lemons (avoiding the bitter white pith underneath the skin) until you have 1 tablespoon of zest.
  3. Combine parsley, garlic and lemon.
  4. Serve with pasta and olive oil, fish, roast chicken or stew.

Serving Variation

Parmesan Gremolata: Add ¼ cup finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice and ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil to parsley mixture.

Nutrition Information

Serves 8
Serving Size: 1 tablespoon

Calories 4; Total fat 0g; Sat. Fat 0g; Chol. 0mg; Sodium 4mg; Carb 1g; Fiber 0g; Sugars 0g; Protein 0g; Potassium 45mg; Phosphorus 5mg

Jill Melton
Jill Melton, MS, RD, is editor and founder of Edible Nashville Magazine.