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At its most traditional, Italian pesto is made from fresh basil leaves, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and raw pine nuts, all of which are ground to a smooth paste in a mortar and pestle (in fact, the word "pesto" comes from the verb "pestare," which means "to crush," as with a pestle). But with modern preparation methods (food processor!) and a little creativity, you can make pesto from just about any herb or green veggie, alone or in combinations, along with oil, some sort of nut, some sort of cheese, and garlic or some other seasoning. There's even a red pesto that gets its color from tomatoes or peppers.
Basic Green Pesto
2 cups fresh herb or veggie leaves, washed
¼ to ½ cup grated hard cheese, such as Parmesan or Romano
¼ to ½ cup raw or roasted nuts; pine nuts or walnuts are traditional, but just about any nut will work
3 cloves minced garlic
½ cup olive oil
Put everything except the oil in a food processor, turn it on, and slowly drizzle in the oil while it is running (you may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a silicone scraper once or twice). Blend until smooth or leave as chunky as you like. Add salt and pepper to taste.
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Once you get the basic pesto recipe down, get creative with your combinations. Start with whatever greens you have left over in your fridge: arugula, basil, spinach, broccoli rabe, parsley, cilantro, mint, garlic greens, or "scapes", wild ramps, mustard greens, lightly cooked asparagus, lightly cooked broccoli, green onions, braising mix, fennel, snow peas, lemon balm, Asian greens…well, you get the idea. If it’s green and yummy, you can make it into pesto. For a mellower pesto, pair stronger flavored greens like cilantro, garlic greens, or mustard greens with spinach or another mild vegetable (a 50/50 mix is good). Below are a few of my favorite combinations.
Spring garlic pesto
Half garlic greens, half spinach, and walnuts (but no garlic)
Italian parsley, pine nuts, aged chèvre
Arugula, almonds, garlic, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus the juice of half a lemon
Mint and green onion pesto
¾ cup mint, ¼ cup green onions, 1 cup parsley, and garlic (but no cheese), plus ½ teaspoon grated organic lemon rind
Cilantro, Thai basil, garlic, sesame oil, and peanuts (but no cheese), plus a tablespoon of minced gingerroot, a tablespoon of lime juice, and hot pepper to taste
Parsley, walnuts, garlic, and Romano cheese
You can turn any of the above into a red pesto by adding ½ cup of sundried tomatoes to the other ingredients in the food processor for a rich, tangy sauce. Roasted red pepper or grilled eggplant are also delicious additions, as are lightly cooked mushrooms.
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Serve your finished pesto tossed with hot whole-grain pasta (mix a little hot water with the pesto to thin it for easy tossing), spread it on toasted rounds of good whole-grain bread, use dabs as a pizza topping, brush it on grilled meat or seafood, dilute to make a marinade, or include a bit in an omelet.
Pesto will keep two to three days in the refrigerator; for longer storage, freeze it in an ice cube tray and pop the frozen cubes into an airtight container. Drop a cube or two into soup for a flavor lift, or thaw and toss with hot pasta for a quick meal.