Come to the Table: Hey pesto

What are you waiting for? Grab a bunch of herbs from your garden, scrounge around your pantry and fridge, and improvise your own pesto.

Garlic scape pesto  (photo credit: Gayle Squires)
Garlic scape pesto
(photo credit: Gayle Squires)
If you’re a purist, pesto can be only one thing: an uncooked slightly licorice-flavored, nutty, salty basil and pine nut paste used to coat pasta. But if you’re ready to break from tradition, there’s a whole world of pestos out there to try, and a whole lot of ways to use it.
Pesto originated in the northern Italian city of Genoa, known for Mediterranean-nurtured sweet basil (“basilica Genovese”) with its own DOP – Denominazione di Origine Protetta – protected status and wild pine tree forestscovering the landscape. With these natural resources, it’s no surprise that the combination of basil and pine nuts, with a little garlic, a glug of olive oil, and a sprinkling of cheese, caught on and is doused liberally over pasta. The name pesto is derived from the Italian pestare, to pound or crush, and that’s exactly how this herbaceous paste is traditionally made -- with a mortar and pestle (same root).
If you don’t live in Genoa, or can’t afford pine nuts, or dislike the black licorice flavor of anise/fennel/ /absinthe/arak/ouzo that is often associated with basil, do like Genoa-born Christopher Columbus and go off to discover new (pesto) lands.
Fried egg drizzled with garlic scape pesto (Gayle Squires)Fried egg drizzled with garlic scape pesto (Gayle Squires)
The basic formula for pesto is something green + cheese + nuts + garlic + oil + salt. And this is where the fun begins. Mash up some garlic and salt, pick whatever herb or leaf is overrunning your garden, add cheese and nuts that you think will pair well, and get pounding with your pestle (or pulse your food processor or blender a few times). Drizzle the olive oil to bring everything together. Ecco Qua! You’ve just made (non-traditional) pesto.
Some of my favorite flavor combinations are pistachio with parsley or mint and almond with dill or arugula. I usually make a base pesto without cheese so, taking into consideration kashrut issues, I can use it a wide variety of dishes, adding cheese when desired. I also often add lemon juice to balance out the flavors.
Then, skip the pasta. Use pesto to marinate meat or fish. Drizzle over roasted vegetables or farm fresh tomatoes or fried eggs. Spread on pizza instead of tomato sauce or on sandwiches instead of mayonnaise. Drop a spoonful in the middle of a bowl of soup as a fancy and flavorful garnish. Add extra olive oil and a dash of vinegar or citrus juice to make a powerful salad dressing.
And if you can’t decide how to use up all your pesto now, refrigerate or freeze it. Press plastic wrap directly onto the pesto surface so it doesn’t interact with air. It will keep refrigerated for 4 days or frozen for at least 2 months. Want to make your life even easier? Freeze pesto in ice cube trays so you can defrost small amounts when you need it.
What are you waiting for? Grab a bunch of herbs from your garden, scrounge around your pantry and fridge, and improvise your own pesto.
Salmon with lemon dill pesto
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine. For Passover, replace the bread with matza and use as a sauce for gefilte fish.
Serves 2
Salmon with lemon dill pesto (Gayle Squires)Salmon with lemon dill pesto (Gayle Squires)
- ½ pound salmon- ½ C dill fronds and stems- 1-2 cloves garlic- 1/3 C slivered almonds- 3-4 T olive oil- juice and zest of one lemon- 1-2 slices of bread (I used half a pita)- salt and pepper
Roast salmon. Preheat oven to 400°F. Rinse salmon fillets and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper and roast on parchment for 10-12 minutes until opaque.
Make pesto. In food processor, puree dill, garlic, and almonds. Add olive oil and lemon juice and zest and continue to pulse. Soak bread in water until mushy. Squeeze out most of the water and add bread to the dill mix. Puree until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve. Spoon pesto on top of salmon and serve warm.
Roasted carrots with carrot top hazelnut pestoAdapted from Bon Appétit. Carrot tops taste a little bit like their roots, but are earthier and quite bitter. To mellow the bitterness, I added one of the carrots and lemon juice. Rather than using pine nuts as in the original recipe, I chose hazelnuts since I like how well carrots and dukkah go together. (Coincidentally, the word dukkah is derived from the Arabic word for to pound.)The leftover pesto is great on vegetables that sweeten with roasting – cauliflower, beets, parsnips, even Brussels sprouts.
Serves 4 as a side dish
Roasted carrots with carrot top hazelnut pesto  (Gayle Squires)Roasted carrots with carrot top hazelnut pesto (Gayle Squires)
- 2 pounds carrots (about a dozen medium) with tops attached-2 T + ¼ Colive oil, divided- kosher salt and freshly ground - ½ garlic clove- ¼ C hazelnuts, toasted and peeled- ¼ C parsley leaves, coarsely chopped- 2-3 T lemon juice- Pinch salt
Prep. Heat oven to 400°F. Peel and trim the carrots, leaving short stems. attached. Set aside one carrot and the leafy tops.
Roast. Cover a baking sheet with parchment. Toss carrots (except for the one you put aside) with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast, tossing occasionally until carrots are golden brown and tender, 35-45 minutes for full sized carrots (less time for smaller carrots).
Crush. Pulse garlic and nuts in a food processor until a coarse paste forms. Add 1 cup of the carrot tops, the carrot you set aside, and parsley; process until a coarse purée forms. Add olive oil and pulse until combined; season with salt and pepper.
Serve. Serve carrots drizzled with pesto.
Parsley pistachio pesto
Parsley is very fresh. I particularly like this with cheese ravioli or roasted potatoes. I’ve provided directions for making it in your food processor or by hand with a mortar and pestle.
Parsley pistachio pesto made with mortar and pestle (Gayle Squires)Parsley pistachio pesto made with mortar and pestle (Gayle Squires)
- ½ C parsley leaves, coarsely chopped- 1 clove garlic - 1/3 C shelled pistachio (I used salted and didn’t add any salt at the end. If you use unsalted pistachios, add extra salt at the end)- ½ C extra virgin olive oil, plus more to cover- kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Option 1: Food processorIn a food processor, puree parsley, garlic, and pistachios. Add olive oil, and continue to pulse until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Option 2: Mortar and pestleSmash the garlic and a pinch of salt with the pestle until smooth. Add the parsley and pistachios and continue to mash until you have a pretty smooth paste (but it will still be a little chunky). You’ll be tempted to use the pestle to stir the leaves against the wall of the mortar, but it really is more effective to just pound up and down. Add the oil tablespoon by tablespoon and pound to incorporate into a smooth paste. Add salt and pepper to taste.Gayle Squires publishes recipes and photographs on the blog, Kosher Camembert. Her cooking and baking is inspired by international travel .