THE FOODIE FILES: Beyond basil

By on August 11, 2015

How to pesto-ize just about anything

Pesto is a celebrated summertime recipe, but the Jackson Hole Foodie says there’s no reason to limit yourself to just basil. (Credit:  Annie Fenn, MD)

Pesto is a celebrated summertime recipe, but the Jackson Hole Foodie says there’s no reason to limit yourself to just basil.
Photo: Annie Fenn, MD

Jackson, Wyoming – Everyone loves pesto, right? Classic pesto, from the Italian “pestare,” which means to crush something, is a simple sauce made with fresh basil, pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, garlic, salt and olive oil. I’ve been making the same recipe for basil pesto for so long I could make it in my sleep. For years it was the only green thing my kids would eat and I just haven’t seen the need to mess with it.

This summer I’ve been straying from my usual ho-hum basil pesto routine. It’s not that basil is boring — I love basil as much as summer itself — but there are so many other interesting greens going off in my garden that are easily pesto-ized. When it comes right down to it, you can make pesto out of just about anything.

Let’s ditch those pine nuts first. Although I do love traditional pine nuts from Italy for their aroma and creamy texture, they have become so rare and expensive that even the Italians can’t afford them. Most blame it on climate change: Pine nut trees need cold weather to incubate their seeds and warm winters in Italy have led to a global pine nut shortage. China, with its boundless supply of Siberian forests, now produces 99 percent of the world’s pine nuts. Those Asian pine nuts are not the same; not only are they tasteless, they can harbor a fungus that causes pine nut syndrome, a bitter, metallic taste in the mouth for several weeks. Sadly, I am avoiding pine nuts like the plague.

But there’s a whole world of tasty nuts (and seeds) out there that are perfect for making pesto. Walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews and pistachios are the best, especially if given a quick toasting in the oven. You don’t even need nuts for great pesto — try using raw, unsalted sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds instead. Soak them in water first, and then whiz together with garlic, lemon zest, olive oil, honey and your favorite fresh green.

Sorry basil, but you are easily replaceable. Substitute any fresh tender green or herb — Italian parsley, arugula, fennel fronds, mint and cilantro — for a classic raw pesto. Pesto doesn’t need to be raw though. By giving tougher greens like kale, radish and dandelion leaves a quick blanch in boiling water to soften them up, you can make pesto with anything that’s growing wildly in the garden. Lemon juice or lemon zest is a nice addition when making pesto with bitter greens.

At this point in the summer, everyone with an abundant supply of kale may need a really good recipe for kale pesto. I make a kale pesto with dried porcini mushrooms, fresh rosemary, garlic and sliced onions, briefly sautéed before it’s puréed. This kale pesto is a good one to freeze for later. Come January, it will be perfect stirred into minestrone soup or a pot of white beans.

When I was researching how to cook with kitchen scraps for a previous column, I came across a recipe for carrot top pesto on the foodie website Food52. The leaves are shredded from the stalks and puréed with toasted almonds, Parmesan cheese, garlic, honey and olive oil. Drizzle it over roasted carrots for a true root to stalk dish. Don’t throw away your carrot tops!

Parmigiano Reggiano is the classic pesto cheese, but any hard, salty, aged cheese will make a great pesto. I like to rummage through the cheese drawer of my fridge to rescue little nubs of forgotten cheese and turn them into pesto. Aged gouda, asiago, and pecorino romano cheeses are all great choices. Or try making a cilantro pesto using manchego cheese and pumpkin seeds.

Most people make pesto with olive oil but other more neutral (and less expensive) oils work fine. Classic pesto is made with a mortar and pestle, but most of us will use a blender or food processor. Be sure to add the oil in a slow stream for a nicely emulsified sauce, and don’t forget to taste it and adjust for salt. I like to pack my pesto into small glass jars, covering the surface with a layer of oil to prevent oxidation and browning. Fresh pesto can be kept in the fridge for up to three days or in the freezer for six months.

When the garden is covered in snow and the next farmers market is six months away, make a pesto that doesn’t even call for greens. My “Sicilian White Pesto” is made with three kinds of nuts, garlic, oregano, golden raisins and red pepper flakes. You’ll find the recipe in the JacksonHoleFoodie.com archives. PJH

Classic basil pesto

Drop two cloves of whole, peeled garlic into a food processor while the motor is running. Add two ounces of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese cut into one-inch chunks and process for one minute. Add one-half cup toasted Italian pine nuts (if you can get them and don’t mind spending a small fortune), one teaspoon Kosher salt, and four cups fresh basil. Process until smooth. With the machine running, slowly pour in one-cup olive oil and process until it’s as silky as you like.

Sunflower seed pesto

Adapted from Bon Appétit magazine

Soak one-half cup raw, unsalted sunflower seeds in cold water for several hours or overnight. Drain and rinse. Add to the bowl of a food processor and purée until smooth with one clove garlic, three cups arugula, one-fourth cup extra-virgin olive oil, two teaspoons honey, one teaspoon lemon zest and one teaspoon fresh lemon juice. Add kosher salt to taste. Thin with water if needed.

Kale and Porcini Pesto

Adapted from “Vegetable Literacy” by Deborah Madison

Cover four slices of dried porcini with one-half cup boiling water and set aside. Warm two tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet. Add four onion slices, one sliced garlic clove, and two teaspoons minced fresh rosemary and sauté over low heat for five minutes. Add four cups packed, stemmed kale, one-half teaspoon Kosher salt, the mushrooms and their soaking water, and increase the heat to medium. Cook until the kale is tender, about six minutes. Let cool slightly, then pulse in a food processor until smooth, adding additional olive oil as needed.

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.


About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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