Lighten Up: Pesto!

Last week’s “Lighten Up” post looked at some of the environmental costs of buying processed food and some of the joys of “putting up” your own food by freezing summer fruits. This week, I’m extending that theme to one of my favorite ways to use fresh, seasonal herbs from your local-food or farmer’s market, farm-share, or garden: pesto.

Pesto is most commonly made with basil, but the word comes from the Italian word for “to pound, or crush.” It’s simply a sauce made by pounding or grinding fresh herbs, garlic, nuts, cheese, and olive oil. Pesto is traditionally used as a sauce for warm pasta, but it can also be used as a spread on sandwiches, a sauce for vegetables, a marinade for fish or chicken, a topping for baked potatoes, a filling for omelets, a sauce for pizza… As you can tell, pesto is one of my basic cooking sauces and spreads, so when the herbs start coming in our garden, I start making pesto, and I freeze it by the half-pint jar for winter. (The photo above is chervil pesto, ready to go in the freezer.)

I make pesto in big batches, using whatever herb is producing like crazy at the moment. You can make small batches in a mortar and pestle, or a blender (a glass jar is best because it won’t absorb flavors), but a food processor is easiest if you’re making it in quantity. This afternoon’s pesto-putting-up operation involved basil, since it’s the herb that most needs using from our garden right now. That’s a salad-spinner full of freshly picked and washed basil in the photo below.

Here’s my recipe for when the basil gets ahead of me in the garden, with my notes about preparation in italics:

Too-much Basil Pesto
6 cloves garlic
3/4 cup Asiago cheese cubed
3/4 cup pecans, toasted (pine nuts are traditional, but they’re expensive–I’ve found toasted pecans tasty instead)
4 cups of basil leaves, packed loosely
3/4 cup olive oil

Before I get started on the pesto, I prepare the herbs by trimming the leaves from the stems and flower stalks with my wonderfully sharp and handy Joyce Chen kitchen scissors. (I’m not a kitchen-tool hog, but I have a few tools I couldn’t do without, including these sharp and pointed scissors. They’re also handy in the garden for harvesting herbs, greens, and flowers.) Now that I’ve got my herbs ready, I start the pesto.

Drop the garlic cloves into a food processor while it is running to mince the garlic. Turn off the machine, add Asiago cheese (I use Asiago in this recipe instead of Parmesan because I like the nuttier flavor)  and pecans and process until clumpy and the texture of very coarse meal. (That’s the nut-cheese-garlic mix in the photo below, ready for the herbs. If you’re sharp-eyed, you’ll notice that the herbs in this photo aren’t basil because I forgot to photograph the basil pesto at this stage! What herb is it? The answer is below.)

Add basil leaves and pulse until minced. Turn on machine and pour in olive oil in a thin stream until mixture is coarsely pureed. Spoon into jars and freeze, or eat some immediately on bread or warm pasta. (Makes 2 ½ cups, which you see in the photo below, ready to be labeled and frozen–or eaten!)
I start making pesto in spring using a peppery green that sprouts early and abundantly in spring (and also in fall): arugula. It loves cool weather and can even survive under a wet blanket of spring snow, as in the photo below.

Arugula pesto
2 cups arugula leaves, stems, and flower buds (cut out the big coarse stems)
1/2 cup spinach leaves (to add a green color and keep the arugula from being overwhelming)
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup Manchego or other hard, aged cheese, cut into one-inch chunks
1/2 cup walnuts
2 T lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
Wash and dry arugula, and cut out coarse stems. Whirl garlic cloves in food processor until minced. Add nuts and cheese, and pulse until a coarse meal. Add arugula, spinach and lemon juice, and process while slowly pouring in olive oil. (Makes 3 cups. Yummy with pasta, shrimp and salmon.)

Chervil (close-up photo above) is one of my favorite French herbs. It’s not often available commercially, but it’s easy to grow in a cool-season garden. Chervil thrives in our high-desert climate in spring and fall. Its licorice-flavored leaves make a delicious pesto. (If you guessed it was the mystery herb, give yourself points!)

Chervil Pesto
1 small clove garlic
1/4 cup Manchego cheese or other mild and hard aged cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup toasted pecans
1 generous cup chervil (packed), large stems removed (you can use flowers and even the green seeds if your chervil has bolted)
2.5 T olive oil

Drop garlic in food processor with machine running (using steel blade) and whirl until minced. Add cubes of manchego and toasted pecans. Pulse until the consistency of coarse meal. Add chervil and pulse until chervil is chopped finely. Then with machine running, pour in olive oil in a thin stream. Add more olive oil (in small amounts) if necessary until pesto is thin enough to spread easily, but not runny.  (Makes 1/2 cup, enough for pasta for six, or four mini-pizza broiled open-face sandwiches.)


When the cilantro starts to bolt in my garden, I make pesto using this lighter variant of the traditional pesto recipe. (If you don’t like cilantro, just pass this recipe by!)

Fresh Cilantro Pesto
3 tablespoons slivered almonds
2 cups cilantro leaves and small stems, loosely packed (you can substitute up to a quarter-cup of parsley for an equivalent amount of the cilantro)
3 T olive oil
2 T lime juice
1-2 cloves garlic
4 T Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp salt
ground pepper (I like to use a mix of different peppers, including black, green, white and pink)

Toast the almonds in a 350 degree oven in a cake pan for 3 to 5 minutes, until they are fragrant and just beginning to turn color. Set aside and cool. Whirl the garlic cloves in a food processor until minced, and then add cooled almonds and inch-size chunks of cheese. Whirl until ground into coarse meal. Add cilantro (and parsley if used), olive oil, lime juice, salt, and a few grinds of a pepper mill and process until smooth. (If you want more liquid pesto, use more olive oil; if you want stiffer pesto, use a bit less.) Makes a bit over 3/4 cup, or enough to use with a large package of fresh pasta or tortellini. (Serves 8 used that way.)

In personal news, Richard is scheduled for brain surgery on August 13th. Between now and then we’re in extreme health mode: He’s eating a diet high in cancer-fighting foods like broccoli (which, by coincidence, is coming on in our garden), green tea, good dark chocolate, turmeric (the yellow spice in curry powders), and red wine. He got a massage today (thanks, Jeannie!) and he’s doing other things to boost his health–body, mind, and spirit. Tuesday we head for Carpenter Ranch in northwestern Colorado for a few days of our working residency. We’ll be there working on the garden-design project until Saturday, and then we’ll be home for a few days before heading for Denver and the VA Medical Center. 

I take heart from the fact that Richard’s feeling well. He’s been working on a commissioned sculptural garden arbor, much like the one in the photo below, which frames the boundary between our garden and the bordering creek. And just look at that gorgeous arc of rainbow above the arbor–what a beautiful reminder to stop and appreciate our moments…