Kitchen Intuition: Pesto magic

Authored By aliceodea

One of the challenges of having a farm subscription (or CSA) is figuring out what to do with what you bring home every week and making sure you do it before anything goes bad. Pesto is one secret weapon in this battle. It is a go-to dish that is quick and easy to make, is versatile, and freezes well (use an ice cube tray to make it easy to thaw out just a little at a time). If you have some greens that you need to use up, you can’t go wrong with pesto. 

The first pestos were made in Italy with a mortar and pestle, and some traditionalists still make it that way (claiming, according to Harold McGee, that “the more thoroughly the cells are broken, the more their contents are exposed to each other and to the air, and the more their flavor evolves”). But the vast majority of pesto makers use a food processor, which moves the preparation of pesto from a minor production to-I kid you not-a two-minute task. The longest part of the process is going to be scraping your delicious homemade pesto out of the food processor.

Pesto allows for all sorts of improvisation, as the possible variations are innumerable, but here is the basic formula: Greens + aromatic (optional) + nuts (optional) + hard cheese (optional) + oil.

Most commonly, these elements are basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmesan cheese.

The preparation is simple: Put everything except the oil in the food processor, blend for a bit, slowly drizzle in the oil while still mixing, season and presto! The pesto is done!

Everything else-from the proportions to the ingredient variations-are details that are wide-open to tinkering. Even pesto world champions admit that no two pestos ever come out exactly the same. That said, I surveyed a whole bunch of basic pesto recipes, and here are their general proportions:

  • 3 cups of loosely packed greens
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • ? cup nuts
  • ? cup grated cheese
  • ? cup oil

Olive oil is the traditional fat to use, but I’ve seen recipes that suggest trying grapeseed oil, corn oil or even substituting some melted butter for some of the oil.

If you don’t have basil, many other herbs or greens will do. My favorite variation is radish leaf pesto. You can also use sorrel, arugula, mint, dill, parsley, cilantro, sage, tarragon, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, garlic scapes, kale, or other vegetables and herbs. Or use a combination of any of the above.

Tamar Adler suggests taking some sliced and diced stems, leaves and cores from cauliflower, broccoli, kale, collards, chard and cabbage (in other words, the stuff you’d otherwise be throwing away); simmering them until they’re soft; and blending that with some garlic, olive oil and a little salt for a simple pesto.

If you like lots of garlic, add extra. If you don’t like garlic, leave it out-you could use onion or shallots instead, or just skip the aromatics entirely. Nuts are not absolutely necessary, either, so if you’re allergic or just don’t prefer them, you can still make a good pesto. If you don’t have pine nuts, you might try walnuts, pecans, pistachios, almonds, cashews or even pumpkin seeds.

Cheese is also optional. There are many delicious vegan pestos out there. Some use miso paste or nutritional yeast to bump up the flavor, but others keep it very simple-like Provence’s pistou, which is often made with just basil, garlic and olive oil.

Other flavors to consider adding are lemon juice, fresh ginger, black olives, mushrooms or some spice-cayenne, chili powder, coriander, nutmeg and paprika are just a few options.

Make a lot or a little, depending on the amount of ingredients you have on hand. You can serve your pesto on pasta or use it as a topping for vegetables, meat or fish. Mix it into soup; top some crostini, a pizza or focaccia; put it on a baked potato; blend it into mashed potatoes; use it as a dip for veggies, chips or bread; add it to sauces; or dress a salad.

It can be a new treat every time. And nothing ever has to go to waste.

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.