Please do not buy pesto. This is a plea, a P.S.A., if you will: Do not, under any circumstance, purchase a prepared jar of pesto. Because making pesto is so dang easy you could be halfway done before you’re even finished with this article.
Pesto is also one of the most customizable spreads there is—and a good way to avoid food waste. Basil is for sure great–but so are radish tops, kale, collard greens, or whatever else you have in your crisper. You can use whatever nuts you have on hand (or not). And you can use up the odd bits of salty, hard cheese (or not).
An impromptu pesto is as easy as one-two-food processor. Here’s how:
1. Something green (although these red pepper and sun-dried tomato pestos would beg to differ): This can be basil, parsley, chopped collard greens or mustard greens, steamed broccoli, chopped kale, kale stems (be sure too boil them until tender), chopped dandelion greens, spinach, radish tops, chopped beet greens, peas, chopped turnip greens, mint, chopped sorrel, arugula, edamame, carrot tops, or cilantro. You can use one of these or combine them, like peas and basil or a few different herbs. You’ll want about 2 to 4 cups, depending on how much pesto you’d like to make and how herbaceous you want it.
2. Toasted nuts: This can be pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pepitas, or sunflower seeds. Be sure the nuts are toasted, though, as this deepens their flavor. Use about 1/4 to 1/2 cup (if your pesto’s tasting too herby, just add more nuts).
3. Grated cheese: Parmesan and pecorino Romano are a good bet here. You want it salty and sharp. Start with 1 cup of grated cheese and add more as desired. For vegan or dairy-free pesto, substitute nutritional yeast, and use about 1/4 cup.
4. Garlic: One or two average-sized cloves will do for a mild garlic flavor, but you can use up to 4 if you love a raw garlic bite. If you go a little overboard and the pesto’s too garlicky, add a touch more cheese to neutralize.
5. An acid: Fresh lemon juice is good here, but you can also use sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar—or a combination of all three. Use 1 to 3 tablespoons, depending on your desired flavor (taste as you go).
7. Salt: Obviously—just season to taste.
6. Olive oil: Use the good stuff here. You’ll need quite a bit, usually anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3 cup. You want the pesto’s texture to be, loose but still coarse (if you use a base like peas or edamame, the pesto will be thicker and more paste-like, so don’t freak out and start adding more and more oil–you can also add a few tablespoons of water to loosen it up).
* Feel free to add anything “extra” into the mix. This includes: olives, anchovies, roasted garlic, preserved lemon, and capers. They’re completely optional, but if you like them, use ’em. Add a little bit, taste, and add more if necessary.
And here’s how to pull your personal pesto together:
1. Place the something green, nuts, anything “extra,” cheese, and garlic in a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Add the acid and salt and pulse again until combined. Then, add the olive oil and pulse until well-blended, but still a little coarse. Taste and adjust seasonings, as needed. That’s it–you made pesto.
Now that you have all this pesto, you’ll want to eat it, of course. Here are some ideas:
– Toss pesto with cooked pasta.
– Stir it into softened butter, place softened butter on wax paper and form a log, wrap, and refrigerate until chilled. Serve the compound butter with grilled fish or steak.
– Spread it on an egg sandwich
– Stir into rice, quinoa, faro, or any other grain.
– Spread onto grilled bread.
– Use it as a dressing for potato salad.
– Slather it on crostini.
– Spread it over pizza.
– Swirl it into scrambled eggs.
– Top soups with it.
– Serve with roasted chicken or fish.
– Toss with roasted vegetables.