Pesto is usually a classic combination of basil, garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil, puréed into a potent paste of sorts, and the perfect summer condiment.
No cooking required, it can be served alongside grilled meats, roasted vegetables, or tossed with pasta. Not only is it easy to make, it’s even easier to adapt to your own tastes, swapping in and out various ingredients based on what you like or what you have available.
Follow these general guidelines and you’ll be on your way to spicing up your supper, thanks to only three or four ingredients.
Pick your greens
Basil is the pesto herb of choice, but let’s face it, if you don’t grow it yourself, it’s expensive to buy and has limited shelf life. Instead, opt for less delicate herbs like parsley, cilantro, dill, mint, or chives. The only ones you really want to stay away from (or use in more sparing quantities) are hearty winter herbs like rosemary or thyme, as they are better suited for cooked applications.
Alternately, you can broaden your selection beyond herbs and move into the territory of lettuces and other greens. Spinach, arugula, and kale are all options. Also, rather than throwing away the greens from vegetables like carrots or beets, you can use them in pesto instead.
A word about blanching: pureeing herbs and other greens can bruise them and cause them to lose their vibrant, green colour. To prevent this, briefly (literally, 3-5 seconds) blanch them in boiling water, remove and drop into a bath of iced water to chill rapidly. This will help to set their colour before proceeding with your pesto recipe.
Nuts and seeds
Pine nuts may come to mind, but again they are not cheap and frankly, don’t have a ton of flavour to bring to the pesto party. Widen your scope; whatever nuts and seeds you enjoy eating out of hand or adding to other savoury dishes can be used in the making of pesto.
Almonds are great, skins on or blanched, pecans or walnuts do the trick, and cashews add a richness that is perfect if you’re using your pesto to make a creamy pasta sauce.
Don’t overlook seeds either, with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and even hemp hearts all bringing different characteristics to this saucy purée. Regardless of what you choose, just make sure to toast them first to get the most out of their flavour.
Here the options are slightly more limited because you want to choose a cheese that is aged (read: dry) enough not to clump up and make a gooey mess of your pesto. Parmesan is ideal for this, as well as similar variants like grana padano or pecorino.
For a truly Albertan option, try using Sylvan Star’s Old Grizzly Gouda, easily available at local retailers. You can also cut out the cheese altogether if you’d prefer a dairy-free option, or simply don’t feel like adding it.
Olive oil is typical in pesto, but may not be considered ideal for a couple of reasons. First, it’s relatively strong in flavour (particularly if its extra virgin), so can overpower the other ingredients.
Second, olive oil can become incredibly bitter when blended, so isn’t the best choice for puréeing with a multitude of other ingredients. So what are some other alternatives? Ultimately that depends on what else you’re choosing to put in your pesto and how you’d like to complement it.
If you want the herbs, nuts, and cheese to be the stars, opt for a neutral oil like grapeseed or canola. However, if you’d like the oil to stand on its own, go for something stronger, like camelina, which adds a lovely grassiness. Or, double up on flavour by using the oil that corresponds with the nuts and seeds you choose. For example, walnut oil with walnuts, or sunflower oil with sunflower seeds.
Keep in mind that some of these oils are quite pungent, so you can always split them half and half with a more neutral oil.
Carrot tops from one bunch of carrots (roughly 2-3 cups)
¼ cup sunflower seeds
1 clove garlic
½ a lemon, juiced
½ cup (120 mL) grapeseed or canola oil
2 Tbs (30 mL) camelina oil
To taste salt and pepper
Water as needed
- Put the carrot tops, sunflower seeds, garlic, lemon juice, and oils in a blender, or container suitable for using an immersion blender. Purée until all the ingredients have been incorporated but the pesto is still rather coarse. Depending on what application you are using it in, thin with water as needed and season to taste with salt and pepper. The pesto can be kept in the fridge for 3-4 days or frozen for future use.