Innovative chefs push the envelope on the traditional paste
esto may conjure images of bright green basil-infused goodness. And that’s what it is — at least in the traditional sense.
True to namesake, pesto comes from the verb “pesta,” which means to pound, grind or crush. The traditional recipe originated in Genoa, Italy, where chefs used a mortar and pestle to crush garlic and pine nuts into a cream then added blanched basil and coarse sea salt to create a rich, flavorful paste.
The final touch: A high-quality blend of Italian hard cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo, and a touch of grassy olive oil.
But pesto has come a long way since the Roman age. It didn’t even become a “thing” in the United States until the 1980s. Once restricted to the aforementioned Italian staples, today’s chefs are working with ingredients from carrots to avocado oil to add an element of caché to their signature paste.
Getting Creative with Pesto
Pesto evolves based on what chefs have in the kitchen — and which ingredients are fresh, flavorful and easy to get. Even in Italy, the pesto that appears on your plate depends on where you’re sitting.
“If you’re in Apulia, a key olive-growing region, you’re going to find olives in your pesto and pesto that’s heavier on olive oil,” explains Derek Simcik, Executive Chef at Scout PNW in the Thompson Seattle. “If you’re in a region that grows a lot of tomatoes, like Puglia, you’re going to find sun-dried tomato-based pesto.”
In Provence, pesto is called pistou and features only oil, basil and garlic — no nuts — because pine trees don’t grow in Provence. In Calabria, pesto takes on a spicy kick with grilled red peppers, black pepper, hot pepper and Pecorino and Romano cheeses. Outside of Italy, especially in culinary meccas like California, chefs use the term “pesto” for any number of pastes, sauces and accoutrements.
Breaking it Down
No matter what flavor profile you’re after, you can take out a mortar and pestle — or break out your processor — and transform basic pesto. All you need is a good sense for what makes good pesto and then you can start experimenting.
“Recipes are just a roadmap. They give you a framework to work within. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take a detour and still end up with a great result,” says Simcik. “In fact, if you take the scenic route you may stumble across some beautiful vistas along the way.” The end result: A more tantalizing paste. Here are a few ways to break it down:
When it comes to pesto, most people think green. At Flea Street in Menlo Park, California, owner and founding chef Jesse Cool mixes greens together to yield a more mild flavor. Favorite combos include arugula and basil, arugula and broad-leaf parsley and basil and mint.
The way to keep it all green? “Keep it cold,” says Cool. “Even if you blanch the greens quickly, keeping it chilled can help it stay green.”
Odessa Piper, creative director food artisan program at Taliesin Preservation in Spring Green Wisconsin, also combines greens, matching the herb she plans to feature with a leafy base green such as spinach, parsley, arugula or kale. “The base green can constitute anywhere from 20 to 50 percent, depending on how I intend to use the pesto,” she says.
A few ingredients to play with:
• Flat-leaf parsley
If you choose a tough green, like kale, broccoli or collards, blanch them in boiling water first before you grind them into pesto. Or, if you want more complex flavors, consider roasting vegetables before crushing them into pesto.
Pine nuts are a natural pick for pesto because they have a soft, neutral flavor. They also go rancid quickly. But according to Piper, there’s no reason to go broke purchasing pine nuts. Plenty of less fickle nuts can provide the toasty, rich flavor you’re after.
In fact, Piper pulverizes sunflower seeds, which are abundant in Spring Green. “I also love hemp seeds,” she says. “Both are my go-to binders. They provide delicate slightly nutty flavors, and they bind the green to the oil.”
Other less pricey substitutes for pine nuts include, but are not limited to:
• Pumpkin seeds
• Macadamia nuts
Still want to go the traditional route? Consider adding whole pine nuts on top of your pesto.
The stench of Parm is a popular pick for pesto, but it isn’t the only option. Almost any hard aged cheese will do the trick.
A few standouts:
All Ground Up
Some chefs say you can’t make “real” pesto unless you use a mortar and pestle. The gentle grinding and blending brings out the flavor of the ingredients, preserves the herbs’ natural oils and produces a consistency that’s unmatched by a food processor or blender.
If you’re preparing large batches, a mortar and pestle may not be practical. The caveat: Heat from the blades of a small appliance can affect the integrity of your ingredients. It can also dull the vibrancy of herbs. For best results, use a processor, not a blender.
Use the pulse button to keep the processor cool and produce a smooth, texturized paste. You might even consider refrigerating the removable blades for an hour before prepping your pesto.
“Think of pesto as a mixture where the ingredients are very finely minced to marry ingredients,” says Odessa Piper, Creative Director Food Artisan Program at Taliesin Preservation in Spring Green Wisconsin.
“If you’re using a food processor to get there, minimize the time in the processor to avoid overheating the oil – or turning the pesto into a puree. Pestos should not be purees.”
If you want a creamy pesto, soft cheese such as goat or cotija may be a good fit. Since Menlo Park boasts several local goat cheese farms, Cool often makes pesto with a half and half combination of Parmesan and chevre. “The goat cheese blends with the oil adding a touch of creaminess and tang to the mix,” she says.
Piper takes a different approach. When she isn’t relying on a trusty Parm, she plays with the hard ends of other cheeses to add additional funk.
There’s no rule that pesto has to be made with garlic and olive oil. In fact, some chefs find that using a mix of avocado, grapeseed or almond oil with olive oil provides a mild, smooth flavor that isn’t quite so overpowering.
No matter which oil you choose, coating greens with oil adds a silky texture and prevents freshly-ground herbs and vegetables from oxidizing. Garlic?
It’s not essential. In fact, according to Cool, a heavy hand with garlic can crush (pun intended) the flavor of a good pesto.
50-75 Nasturtium leaves
¼ cups pecan
½ cup olive oil
½ cup Ricotta salata (or parmesan if
Salt and pepper, to taste
- Wash the nasturtium leaves and shake them dry.
- Toast the nuts: Put them in a dry pan over medium heat, stirring every 30 seconds or so. Cook for 2-3 minutes until they begin to become fragrant. Remove from heat.
- Hand chop leaves 1/3 at a time. Continue this until all of the leaves are blended.
- Chop the pecans until minced and add to the leaves.
- Add in the cheese and half the oil. Blend.
- Add more oil until it’s the desired consistency. This will depend on how much nasturtium you used.
- Taste. Add salt, pepper, more nuts or more cheese if you desire.
The Perfect Pesto
Pesto is more than just a delectable sauce. It’s a way to transform the extra herbs and produce you don’t want to waste into a silky paste you can freeze and eat for weeks.
“Since you can’t buy two sprigs of mint or a few leaves of basil, use the surplus of whatever ingredients you have and make a pesto that you can jar up and keep in your fridge,” says Simcik. “Cap it with some oil and seal it. That way you always have an accompaniment for a charcuterie plate or a sandwich spread.”
Ask any chef what they put in their pesto and they’ll say whatever grows in their region and is in season. Cool, for example, makes a delectable — and sweet — carrot pesto with pine nuts, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and serves it atop vegetable dishes or on top of cheese ravioli. Simcik whips up an oven-dried stone-fruit pesto for an interesting chewy texture. And Piper serves a pesto with the long stems of fennel and weed.
Applications, too, can run the gamut. Once reserved for topping pasta and fish, today’s pesto shows up on burgers, omelets and even as a condiment. At the Riverview café, Piper uses the majority of her pestos on flat breads, swirled as a garnish for soups, or with crudités. “The directions you can go with pesto are only limited by your imagination,” says Simcik.