Pesto; making magic with herbs
“In North America, cooks have been going wild with pesto since its debut on these shores.” Susan S. Bradley
My herb garden is growing so fast right now it is practically marching in the door and begging me to make pesto. Ahhh, pesto, the very word evokes the senses. Redolent with basil, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese and nuts, this sauce contains bold, bright flavors that makes anything you stir it into come alive and dance. Pesto’s roots are in Northern Italy where these ingredients grow in people’s back yards. It is their go-to favorite pasta sauce and they have been known put it on anything but maybe the children.
Pesto came thundering into North America in the 1980’s and became wildly popular. Suddenly ever restaurant menu had pesto on it in some form. Something began to happen to it here in the land of no traditions, where the ever-creative chefs never sleep. They started adding what might be growing in their back yards, opposed to Italy’s.
Pesto began to appear with easy and comfortable North American ingredients like parsley walnut pesto or rosemary hazelnut pesto. More inventive pesto came right along too like lemon verbena almond, Cilantro Ginger Macadamia and Mayflower pesto with chickweed, violets and miner’s lettuce. The box had been opened and there is no limit to the imagination.
It’s no wonder that the wonderful world of pesto has blossomed, as it turns out you can use it for way more than tossing it in pasta. Some of the glorious ideas for pesto include rubbing it on chicken before you roast it, spread it over fish before baking it, smear it on crostini with goat cheese, melt it over steamed veggies, dollop on baked or fried potatoes, add to scrambled eggs or mashed potatoes, make vinaigrette with it, swirl it into hot soup, melt over steamed clams or mussels, use for a pizza sauce or add to your popcorn. Sky’s the limit but whatever you do with it you will magically turn into a gourmand as the grunts of appreciation come from your gobbling devotees. (Trust me on this one)
Pesto is made up of a few basic ingredients; olive oil, herbs, (lots of them!) garlic, lemon juice, nuts and cheese but there a few helpful hints to making it shine. First off, you want to use a light olive oil, not the EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) which we all love and adore. EVOO contains bitter tasting polyphenols, which one doesn’t usually taste due to the fact that they are covered with fatty acids. But when you assault the oil with the food processor, the bitterness comes out in retaliation. If you use a light olive oil to make your pesto you will not get the bitter aftertaste as with EVOO. You can use less oil and get a thick spreadable pesto or add more oil for a pesto that is pourable.
It is important to use a blender or food processor for this magic formula. It also works a bit better, particularly if you are using a blender, to coarsely chop everything before you process it. One can use a mortar and pestle but it take a loooooong time and a strong wrist. If using basil, add equal parts parsley to the pesto to keep the sauce bright green as it ages. (Basil pesto turns army green when it oxidizes.) Lightly toasting the nuts you are using is also important to maximize the flavor.
This recipe is from a very talented chef and food blogger from Portland, Susan S. Bradley. (Check out her AMAZING blog here and prepare to drool) As Susan would say, “This pesto formula is well balanced, with nuts in the starring role and a dry grating cheese in the supporting role.” Feel free to experiment here and try making your own magical formula.
Basic Magical Pesto
This recipe is easily made vegan by adding 1/2 cup of nutritional yeast instead of cheese.
1 cup of lightly toasted nuts such as walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, macadamia nuts. (lightly chopped if using a blender)
2 cups of leafy packed fresh herbs or greens such as parsley, basil, rosemary, sage, arugula, mint, spinach, chives, garlic scapes, etc.
2-5 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly minced
1-2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
½ cup of a dry aged cheese such as parmesan, parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino romano or dry asiago cheese.
1/2 cup to 1 cup of light olive oil
½ teaspoon of sea salt or more to taste
In your handy dandy food processor or blender, frothify the herbs, garlic and lemon juice. Add the nuts and keep the contraption going as you toss in the cheese. Next, with the machine still humming away, slowly add the olive oil and process till the desired consistency is achieved. Sprinkle in the salt and then after turning off the processor, taste the magical mix and see if it needs a bit more salt. Store it in the fridge in an airtight container for up to a week to use whenever magic is needed. (Keeps great in the freezer for much longer.)
Rosemary Hazelnut Pesto
In the basic pesto recipe, use hazelnuts, 1 ½ cups of fresh parsley, ½ cup fresh rosemary leaves, zest of one lemon and omit the cheese. Great on meats and root veggies, particularly potatoes.
Cilantro Ginger Pesto
In the basic pesto recipe, use macadamia nuts, 2 cups of fresh cilantro, 2 large green onions or a bunch of chives, 2 tablespoons of fresh grated ginger, lime juice instead of the lemon, and for spice if you like, one jalapeno chili seeded, ribbed and coarsely chopped. Crazy good on fish, in stir fries and swirled in creamy soups like butternut squash.
Green garlic pesto
In the basic pesto recipe use 2 cups of chopped green garlic, 1 cup of hazelnuts or walnuts, and all the rest of the ingredients and process the same. Most excellent on pasta, chicken, tofu, and veggies.
Herb Garden pesto
In the basic pesto recipe, use one cup hazelnuts or walnuts, 1 cup fresh parsley, 1 cup of a combination of fresh herbs that are growing in your garden, add a tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar instead of the lemon juice. This is my favorite pesto this time of year to put on everything.