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Pesto has come so far. Italian for “pounded,” once the only way to make this dish originating from Genoa, Italy, was to crush the ingredients — fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmesan — with a mortar and pestle until they blended together into a bright green sauce.

Oh, how our definition of pesto has changed. Today, not only does the food processor makes quick work of the “pounding” but the ingredients have expanded to include herbs from parsley to sage even collards to kale and sun-dried tomatoes, the cheese can be hard goat cheese, Asiago or even miso paste. And the oil can be avocado or most any nut oil. No offense to basil, but pesto can be whatever pleases you. Most of the time I usually stick with the tried and true, traditional basil pesto, but I do enjoy switching up the ingredients to stir into omelettes, soups, salad dressings as well as pasta and grains.

The time to make pesto is now, when all the herbs and greens are at their peak — beautiful and abundant. And while the method for making is fairly straightforward, there are some tricks and tips that will help make the pesto creamier and prettier. For instance, blanching the leaves and shocking in cold water will help keep the greens nice and bright.

These days, we make it with marjoram, nettles, asparagus and sorrel. When substituting nasturtiums for basil, stick to the usual formula and ratios as the leaves are naturally assertive and able to hold their own next to pesto’s other strong flavors. Try toasted walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts instead of pine nuts. Stir the pesto into vichyssoise, spread it on pizza dough before topping with shaved asparagus and Parmesan and baking, or spoon it over roasted cauliflower. Thinned slightly, it becomes a delicious sauce for lamb chops, poached halibut or grilled salmon.

This infinitely versatile sauce never gets boring and you don’t need a huge amount of culinary expertise to create it.

klawson@detroitnews.com

Broccoli Pesto with Bow Ties

Farfalle pasta, commonly called bow ties, is a great vehicle for fresh pesto, no matter what the green, as it’s unique shape can hold the sauce. This is a great recipe for early spring that you can make long before basil comes into season. Hazelnuts stand in for pine nuts. Recipe adapted from Vegetarian Times.

6 tablespoons blanched hazelnuts, plus more for garnish, optional

2 cups broccoli florets

1 1/2 cups loosely packed parsley leaves

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling, optional

1/2 cup mint leaves

4 teaspoons lemon juice

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

11/2 teaspoons capers, rinsed and drained, optional

5 large garlic cloves, peeled

12 ounces farfalle pasta

Toast hazelnuts in skillet 3 to 5 minutes, or until golden, shaking skillet often. Cool, coarsely chop, and set aside.

Meanwhile, bring large pot of water to a boil. Cook broccoli in boiling water 2 to 3 minutes, or until tender. Remove with slotted spoon. Drain, and rinse under cold water. Drain again.

Pulse hazelnuts, broccoli, parsley, oil, mint, lemon juice, lemon zest, capers (if using), and garlic in food processor until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, if desired.

Cook farfalle according to package directions in broccoli cooking water. Reserve 1/4 cup cooking water before draining. Toss farfalle with pesto and pasta cooking water. Garnish with toasted hazelnuts, if using, and drizzle with olive oil, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 608 calories; 30 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 44 percent calories from fat); 72 g carbohydrates; 4 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 197 mg sodium; 15 g protein; 6 g fiber.

Dark Leafy Pesto

Sturdier greens such as collards, kale or mustard get blanched to make them tender. This pesto gets a hint of Southern flavor from pecans and fresh sage. You could even spice it up with a dash of hot sauce. Serve over pasta and roasted summer veggies. Recipe adapted from Vegetarian Times

Pesto

8 ounces collard, kale, or mustard greens, tough stems trimmed

1/4 cup pecans

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1/4 cup sage leaves

2/3 cup olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt, optional

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Blanch greens in large pot of boiling salted water 3 minutes. Refresh under cold water. Drain, pat dry, and tear into pieces.

Pulse pecans, Parmesan, and garlic in food processor until finely chopped. Add greens and sage leaves, and pulse until greens are finely chopped. With motor running, add oil in steady stream, and process until smooth. Season with salt (if using) and pepper. Makes 1 cup.

Roasted Squash

3 yellow squash, quartered and sliced 1/2-inch-thick

3 zucchini, quartered and sliced 1/2-inch thick

1 tablepoon olive oil

6 ounces penne or other medium-size pasta (1 1/2 cups)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss yellow squash and zucchini with oil, and spread on one or two large baking sheets. Roast 20 to 25 minutes, or until vegetables are browned, tossing once or twice. Meanwhile, cook penne according to package directions. Drain, and reserve 1/4 cup cooking water.

Toss penne with 1/4 cup pesto and reserved pasta cooking water. Divide among bowls, and top with squash. Serves 6.

Per serving: 432 calories; 31 g fat (5 g saturated fat; 65 percent calories from fat); 32 g carbohydrates; 7 g sugar; 3 mg cholesterol; 286 mg sodium; 9 g protein; 5 g fiber.

Pesto Portobellos

These delicious stuffed mushrooms make a fabulous entrée. The hazelnuts are optional, but add a nice crunch. To serve as an appetizer, cut each mushroom into 4 pie-shaped pieces.

8 large portobello caps, about 6 inches round

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt to taste

2/3 cup seasoned breadcrumbs

2/3 cup prepared basil pesto (see box)

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest from 2 large lemons

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup finely chopped hazelnuts, optional

1/3 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese

Chopped parsley or mint for garnish

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line two shallow roasting pans or baking sheets with aluminum foil.

Gently wipe mushroom caps with damp towel. Use paring knife to pry out any bits of stems; chop stems finely.

Lightly brush tops of caps with oil. Set caps, gill sides up, in prepared pans. Sprinkle lightly with salt.

Combine chopped stems, breadcrumbs, pesto, lemon zest, vinegar and hazelnuts, if using. Spoon about 2 rounded tablespoons of topping into each mushroom.

Roast mushrooms on top rack 5 minutes. Switch to bottom rack. Continue roasting until tender, 10 to 15 minutes total. Sprinkle grated cheese liberally on each mushroom, and garnish with parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 8.

Per serving: 230 calories; 17 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 67 percent calories from fat); 11 g carbohydrates; 2 g sugar; 10 mg cholesterol; 500 mg sodium; 6 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

Serve slathered on slices of toasted country bread or baguette or for a sauce for grilled vegetables or pasta. Recipe adapted from Saveur.

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup toasted blanched almonds, chopped

2 tablespoons rosemary leaves, minced

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons. sugar

1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or paprika

20 pitted oil-cured black olives

10 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Process oil, almonds, rosemary, vinegar, sugar, Aleppo, olives, tomatoes, and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped; season with salt and pepper. Makes 1 1/2 cups or 6 servings.

Per serving (per 1/4 cup): 429 calories; 45 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 94 percent calories from fat); 7 g carbohydrates; 3 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 207 mg sodium; 3 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Pumpkin Seed and Cilantro Pesto

Toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) give this Mexican-inspired pesto a warm, toasty flavor. Serve it with roasted squash or grilled fish. Recipe adapted from Saveur.

2 cups packed cilantro

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

1/3 cup finely grated parmesan

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pulse cilantro, oil, pepitas, parmesan, lime juice, and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped; season with salt and pepper. Makes 1 1/2 cups or 6 servings.

Per serving (per 1/4 cup): 274 calories; 29 g fat (5 g saturated fat; 95 percent calories from fat); 2 g carbohydrates; 0.2 g sugar; 4 mg cholesterol; 165 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Pepper and Eggplant Pesto

Red peppers and eggplant with a touch of ricotta adds richness to sautéed red peppers and eggplant, making it an excellent bruschetta topping or to jazz up a baked potato. Recipe adapted from Saveur.

1 small eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste

1/4 cup olive oil

1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and minced

1/2 small yellow onion, minced

2 plum tomatoes, cored and minced

1/2 cup ricotta cheese

1/3 cup packed basil

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place eggplant in a colander and toss with 2 tsp. salt; let sit for 20 minutes. Drain eggplant and dry on paper towels; set aside.

Heat oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat; add pepper and onion, and cook, stirring often, until soft and lightly caramelized, about 10 minutes. Add eggplant, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, and cook, stirring, until soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and add ricotta and basil; puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Makes 1 1/2 cups or 6 servings.

Per serving (per 1/4 cup): 149 calories; 11 g fat (2 g saturated fat; 66 percent calories from fat); 10 g carbohydrates; 6 g sugar; 6 mg cholesterol; 518 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 4 g fiber.

Nasturtium Pesto

Nasturtium leaves offer an assertive pesto with a hint of heat. For a pretty presentation, garnish the dish with a nasturtium flower. Recipe adapted from plantea.com

Into a food processor or blender, put the following ingredients:

4 cups packed nasturtium leaves

3 to 5 cloves of garlic

1 1/2 cups olive oil

2 drops Tabasco sauce

1 cup walnuts

Into a food processor or blender, put the following ingredients:

Process the mixture until smooth. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 447 calories; 49 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 99 percent calories from fat); 4 g carbohydrates; 0.5 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 3 mg sodium; 3 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Here’s the basic pesto recipe, along with some ideas to get you on another pesto path with equally satisfying results:

Basil Pesto

2 cups packed fresh basil leaves

2 cloves garlic

1/4 cup pine nuts

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino cheese

Combine the basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

If using immediately, add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese.

If freezing, transfer to an air-tight container and drizzle remaining oil over the top. Freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw and stir in cheese. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 211 calories; 22 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 94 percent calories from fat); 2 g carbohydrates; 0.2 g sugar; 4 mg cholesterol; 153 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 0.4 g fiber.

Variations

Spring garlic pesto: Half garlic greens, half spinach, and walnuts (but no garlic)

Parsley-chèvre pesto: Italian parsley, pine nuts, aged chèvre

Arugula almond: Arugula, almonds, garlic, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus the juice of half a lemon

Mint–green onion pesto: 3/4 cup mint, 1/4 cup green onions, 1 cup parsley, and garlic (but no cheese), plus 1/2 teaspoon grated organic lemon rind

Thai pesto: 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-walnut pesto: Parsley, walnuts, garlic, and Romano cheese

You can turn any of the above into a red pesto by adding 1/2 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.

To store the pesto, freeze it in ice cube trays so it's ready whenever you need it.

Kate Lawson

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