Vegetable Garden: The Pesto Variations—Beyond Basil
A recent trek to the compost pile forced me to reckon with the state of affairs in my vegetable garden, particularly the state of green affairs. The basil is bushy and much of it is flowering; the kale is as high as my waist and deep green. It is time to whip out the Cuisinart and buy a nice big jug of olive oil (extra virgin, of course). There is pesto to be made.
Most of us think of pesto as strictly a basil-based dish; simply whir your emerald leaves in the food processor with olive oil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and presto: pesto! But once I stumbled upon a recipe for mint pesto (which makes perfect sense, in that basil is a member of the mint, or mentha, family, Lamiaceae, along with rosemary, sage, oregano, and other aromatic herbs), I realized that pesto has a broader definition, allowing for more flexibility in ingredients and flavors than we allow ourselves. The literal meaning of pesto is to pound or to crush; it’s related to the word “pestle,” as in “mortar and… ” Basically, just about any combination of ingredients you can grind into a paste can be a form of pesto. What we commonly know as pesto, made with basil, is pesto Genovese, originating in Genoa, Italy. It migrated to Provence, losing the cheese along the way, and became pistou.
There are several variations on the traditional basil theme that seems to have followed the delectable sauce from its starting point in the Mediterranean. Lemon basil adds a nice zest while Holy basil evokes a flavor more representative of a traditional Thai dish than a Genovese staple. While the commonly-used pine nuts are both smooth and nutty, they can be a bit pricey. Walnuts, especially toasted, are a perfectly acceptable substitute and blend nicely with the olive oil. Don’t be afraid to add a bit of salt or a squeeze of lemon in your pesto experiments.
The most difficult step in pesto adventuring is leaving the basil behind. Pesto does not require basil; it only calls for a mortar and pestle (or, thank heaven for modern conveniences, a food processor) and a generous amount of olive oil. A friend recommends following the typical pesto recipe, but using parsley instead of basil, which she finds too strong. Others have suggested kale—both raw and lightly steamed—arugula, or spinach. My own mint variation includes orange zest, chocolate mint, and almonds. Or try cilantro pesto, using almonds, walnuts, or pumpkin seeds for a seasonal twist, plus a bit of jalapeño pepper. Soak raw pumpkin seeds for at least 15 minutes and grind them up with parsley, ginger, tamari (soy sauce), lemon juice, olive oil, and, again, a bit of jalapeño for an irresistible variation. Bear in mind that pesto need not be green; think of pestos based on sun-dried tomatoes or roasted red peppers (often referred to as romesco, pesto’s red cousin of Spanish origin).
All forms of pesto are versatile and forgiving; give yourself the freedom to experiment and find the proportions and combination of ingredients that produce the flavor and consistency of pesto that appeals to your palate. The uses of pesto are as infinite as its variations. Beyond the typical pasta sauce, pesto can top crostini (with or without a slice of tomato and/or mozzarella), add a dollop of flavor to soup, be embedded in lasagna, bring zing to a sandwich, or serve as a tasty dip for crudite.
If you have a vegetable garden, you’re already well aware that frost warnings are on the horizon. It’s time to take stock of what to harvest. Begin with the basil, which can’t tolerate the cold and may already be getting bitter. Give yourself more time than you think you need; there’s nothing worse than harvesting a bushel of basil and watching it wilt as you while away the hours plucking leaves and putting them through the rinse cycle before they even hit the food processor bowl. If you’re growing a lot of basil, try to harvest it in batches rather than all at once. And remember that, with pesto Genovese, a little goes a long way.
Plan to freeze a pesto base—simply basil and olive oil, and a bit of salt—and add the other ingredients when you’re ready for a taste of summer in the chill of winter. One popular technique is to freeze this base in ice cube trays, then transfer the cubes to a freezer-safe sandwich bag; when you’re ready to recall your garden’s summer splendor in a meal, defrost only the amount of cubes you’ll use and whir in the garlic, nuts, and cheese.
Other pesto candidates that may be in your garden—kale, parsley, arugula—can better tolerate the cold. Regardless, it’s a great time of year to begin experimenting with pesto variations. The results may have an impact on your garden planning for next year. And on your dinner table for tonight.—Nichole Dupont