Like most home cooks, I started with recipes from chefs or foodie friends I admired. I bought the exact ingredients called for. I measured them with tablespoons and measuring cups. I followed every step called for, making sure to read all of the instructions before I started.
Which means when I first made pesto, it had to be made with the following items: sweet basil, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, garlic, and olive oil. That’s it. Nothing else. Ideally you crush it all in a mortar like an Italian grandmother as well.
But I was also a poor grad student/non-tenure-line faculty member for a long time. (I’m still the latter.) So who had the money for basil and pine nuts and good parm? So I started changing out one thing at a time. Sub in walnuts for pine nuts? Actually really excellent! What if I don’t have Parmesan? How about this on-sale Aldi goat cheese? Even more excellent!
Eventually I realized that all pesto is basically the following things:
- Cheese (optional)
- Garlic and/or onion
This means your greens can be pretty much anything–spinach, beet greens, garlic scapes, carrot tops, cilantro, parsley, radish tops, etc. The only thing I would probably avoid are more traditional lettuces like iceberg or Romaine simply because of the water content, but toss that spring mix in the blender! It’s good to go!
For seeds and nuts, I’ve used pecans, walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds. I’m sure there are more. Just think about the saltiness and the flavor profile because this taste will come out more than you may think since pine nuts are less flavorful in traditional pesto.
For cheeses, I personally lean towards soft cheese like goat cheese or ricotta. However, hard cheeses that mimic the umami of Parmesan also work. Think manchego or an aged gouda. There are truly endless possibilities ,and it’s up to you to figure them out! Or, if you’re vegan, leave it out altogether!
Traditional pesto use garlic, but I also like to add some scallion or a little bit of something from the onion family to mine. You could include a bit of shallot or chives to add some oomph as well. (Or if you’ve got spring onions or field garlic growing in your front yard, toss those in instead. I love yard food!)
Finally, while the quality of oil does help, you’re going to need quite a bit of it, so I usually recommend whatever olive oil you traditionally cook with. (For me it’s the Aldi brand that’s $3.99 a bottle.) I also like to include a squeeze of lemon or a tiny bit of good vinegar just to help it keep it’s color longer if you’re planning on storing it in the fridge.
To make the pesto, just add all of the ingredient, minus the olive oil and lemon, to your food processor or blender.
Blend until all ingredients are equal size.
Squeeze your lemon (or add a splash of good vinegar) and turn to blend.
Slowly add your olive oil to the mixture until you’ve hit a desired consistency.
Eat immediately or store in your refrigerator for up to two weeks. Alternatively you can freeze your pesto in ice cube trays.
Below are two different pestos I made this week.
Above are the ingredients for a carrot top pesto. This one (final version pictured at the top of this post) I was making as a dip, so I used my leftover homemade ricotta, pumpkin seeds, green onion, lemon, and olive oil. Note that by adding a 1/2 cup of cheese instead of the tablespoon or so I usually do, this takes on a more creamy and dip-like consistency. It’s still great on pasta or pizzas though!
Here I wanted to make a more “traditional” pesto to put on baked potatoes and rice this week for lunch. (Yes, pesto + rice is amaing! Put an egg on it, and it’s breakfast!)
This one includes turnip greens, sunflower seeds, cotija cheese, garlic, lemon, and olive oil.
Now you’re ready to get creative! Let us know your favorite combinations in the comments!