Growing fresh herbs can turn into a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have zippy ingredients at your fingertips that tastes so much better than the jars of dried herbs you've had in your spice cabinet forever. On the other, herbs can grow like crazy and you can end up with far more than you bargained for. And for those of us who buy bunches of herbs at the grocery store, using them all up before they start to go slimy can feel like a race against the clock. Allow us to offer an easy, delicious solution: Pesto.
You've probably tried pesto as a pasta sauce, but think outside the bowl—it's just as delicious as a sandwich spread, especially with sliced turkey or chicken. It also tastes great as a dip for crudité, either by itself or swirled into sour cream or Greek yogurt. You can also dollop it atop grilled or baked chicken or fish for a quick and easy entree. As long as you have a few simple ingredients, you can make pesto out of virtually any herb. Here's how.
Start With Greens
Traditional pesto recipes, also known as pesto alla genovese, call for fresh basil. But you can use a wide range of herbs and even salad greens to make pesto. Try cilantro for that South-of-the-border flair or parsley for a green, slightly spicy bite. Dill, oregano, sorrel, or even mint all make great options, either solo or blended. A good rule of thumb is to mix herbs into pesto that you would blend as a dried rub or sauce ingredient. Kale, watercress, arugula, spinach, or even carrot and beet tops also make tasty pesto, as an easy way to use up the parts of your produce you may otherwise discard. Even broccoli and artichoke hearts can get in the game. If you use a plant that has a woody stem, strip the leaves and discard it or your pesto will come out with a grittier texture.
Pine nuts give pesto a nutty element and help add body, but they can get pricey. For a more wallet-friendly sauce, try substituting walnuts, almonds, pecans, or even hulled pepitas or pumpkin seeds. If you have a nut allergy or just don't have any on hand, you can go without it. Pesto sans nuts is called a pistou, which often doesn't include cheese either. So if your fridge is a little on the bare side, never fear—you can still pesto with aplomb.
Toss in Cheese
You want to use fresh, high-quality Parmesan cheese for pesto, to let that salty, nutty, cheesy flavor really shine. Grating it fresh will let you control the texture more than the ultra-fine powdered stuff that comes in a can. Of course, fresh Parm doesn't come cheap. Play with different cheeses to customize your pesto presentation. Try it with gouda, asiago, cotija, or any dry, aged cheese that has some heft to it. Cheeses like mozzarella have too much water, so steer clear of the soft stuff. Make your pesto vegan by substituting nutritional yeast for the cheese, or leave it out entirely and add more nuts and greens to compensate.
Oil It Up
Finally, your pesto is a great place to highlight the nice extra-virgin olive oil you save for dressings. Because it has so few ingredients, the simple sauce showcases your oil's floral, grassy character beautifully. But if you don't have fancy-pants EVOO on hand, swap it out for pretty much any other more neutral oil. Try avocado, grapeseed, or even canola. They won't have quite the same flavor, but will still work just fine. You may want to avoid pre-seasoned basting oil or infused oils. Because pesto rests on a base of fresh herbs, any extra notes will just end up competing with it and may come out tasting bitter or just off. Keep it simple for best results.
Blend, Baby, Blend
When you're ready to assemble your pesto, pulse your greens, nuts, and any supporting players in a food processor. Add fresh garlic to give it a pungent zest, lemon juice to balance out the herbs and cheese, and of course, salt and pepper to bring everybody together. If you use leafy greens like kale or veggies like broccoli, chop or tear them into smaller, evenly-sized pieces so it ends up uniformly smooth. Process it all until you have a paste-like texture, then stir in your oil and cheese until everyone gets to know one another. Salt and pepper to taste, then use it on everything. Pesto also freezes great, so go ahead and make a big batch. Then pull some out in the dead of winter, for a hint of the herb garden on a plate.