When I walk by our bunched herbs in produce, one of the first things that comes to mind is making fresh pesto. It is so fresh and green, the perfect kind of thing to help lift my mood in this dreary weather. It is also deceptively simple to do and I can think of at least 100 ways to use it.
Traditional Italian pesto is, of course, made strictly with basil, pine nuts, Parmesan, garlic, and really good olive oil. It’s a classic sauce, no contest. But there are so many versions and ways to make pesto something unique to you. Switch out the basil for another handy herb or leafy green, replace the pine nuts with a different favorite nut, there is something about walnuts that is great, or swap the Parmesan for pecorino or asiago. Use more or less of anything to suit your tastes. We found a few great ideas at Bon Appetit to help get you thinking.
The verdant base of your choice is going to be your alt-pesto’s most distinctive feature, and different vegetables are going to require different preparations before they’re ready to be pesto-ized. Tender herbs and greens like parsley, cilantro, and arugula can be used raw, no problem. But tougher stuff (think kale or collards) will need a quick blanch in boiling salted water to soften them up, and should be drained thoroughly to make sure you’re not adding a bunch of extra liquid to your sauce. Bonus points for roasting or grilling veg like scallions and broccoli rabe before throwing them in the food processor (or blender, or mortar), which will add some nice caramelized flavor. And nothing says you can only use one green element at a time—feel free to mix and match to your heart’s content.
TRY WITH: Parsley, cilantro, chervil, arugula, dandelion greens, broccoli, broccoli rabe, scallions, garlic scapes, ramp tops, kale, collards, mustard greens, radish tops, beet greens, spinach, watercress, peas.
You have our permission to never buy pine nuts again – there’s a whole world of tasty nuts and seeds out there that’ll add the rich earthiness that you’re after in your dream pesto. Whatever you decide to use, make sure to give your nuts or seeds a healthy toasting in the oven (and let them cool completely!) before buzzing them up, which will lend dark, roast-y notes to your finished sauce.
TRY WITH: Walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts.
Parmesan lends a distinctive savory funk to traditional basil pesto, but it isn’t your only option—any hard, salty, aged cheese (Italian or not) will get you there. If, for whatever reason, you’re interested in making a dairy-free pesto, you can go ahead and leave the cheese out, but be sure to increase the quantity of nuts and seeds you’re using to compensate.
TRY WITH: Pecorino Romano, aged manchego, aged gouda, aged cheddar, cotija, Grana Padano, aged Asiago.
The Other Stuff
The greens, cheese, and nuts are any pesto’s biggest stars, but that doesn’t mean that the other supporting elements can’t get mixed up as well. Olive oil is traditional (and delicious), but a neutral oil like canola or grapeseed could be swapped in if you didn’t want olive oil’s particular grassiness distracting from other flavors. Lemon juice and zest are normally our go-to for brightening up an otherwise rich, low-tone sauce, but you could really use any citrus or vinegar to balance things up. And the garlic? Well, just leave the garlic. There are some parts of tradition that we just don’t want to mess with.