PESTO: IT’S NOT JUST FOR BASIL ANYMORE. Basil pesto is unarguably amazing, and come August there’s nothing better. In the meantime, I invite you to join me in unleashing a variety of pesto. You won’t be disappointed.
The word pesto comes from the Latin pestare, ‘to crush’, as in a mortar and pestle. Pesto is a paste that contains, at the least, salt, olive oil, garlic and a pungent green,. It is ubiquitous in Mediterranean cooking, though with slight variations of ingredients and name. Many variations contain nuts and sharp, aged cheese, such as Parmesan. Pesto can be used as a sauce for pasta and as an addition to many other dishes: sandwiches, meat, seafood, roasted or grilled vegetables, omelets, soup, salads, and more.
Possible pesto greens include spinach, kale, mint, parsley, basil, mustard and turnip greens and arugula. Pesto can be raw, if the nuts are not toasted, and vegan, if the cheese is left out. To accommodate someone with a nut allergy (or if you don’t have any on hand), it can be made without nuts, as a French pistou. It is delicious with or without all of the possible additions, and I find that if it has at least a flavorful green, olive oil, salt and garlic, I don’t really miss the other ingredients.
You can make pesto with either garlic cloves or garlic scapes. Garlic scapes are flower heads sent up by the garlic plant in June. Scapes are cut off so the plant focuses its energy on growing a nice plump bulb, rather than seeds. They have a mild garlic flavor that lessens with cooking. Steamed scapes taste like green beans, whereas raw ones have quite a garlicky bite.
Garlic is propagated by planting one clove per desired bulb in early winter, before the ground is frozen. It is harvested the following late July or early August. It is possible, but much more difficult, to grow garlic from the seeds that would grow in the scape’s flower.
Start your pesto by packing the bowl of a food processor with your green on hand. Add garlic, either peeled cloves or chopped scapes. Choose a nut based on what you think would go well with the greens. The nuts may be raw or toasted.The nuts may also be soaked, but they don’t have to be; if I’m using raw seeds, I often like to soak them for at least an hour before using them for a lighter, creamier result. Nuts are best unsalted, so that you retain control over the saltiness of the pesto. Pine nuts are traditional in pesto alla Genovese, the common traditional basil pesto. Pine nuts are delicious, very light and fatty, and expensive. Walnuts are a good substitute, and easier on the pocket. Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds work well in milder pestos. Almonds and hazelnuts are also good choices.
It is wonderful beyond belief to pull pesto out of the freezer in January: a sudden vibrant splash of summer on the taste buds. With or without the cheese in it, pesto freezes well. Fill small zip-lock bags (snack size), squeezing the air out, or fill a half pint mason jar, topping it off with a smidge of olive oil to protect it from freezer burn. Label your goodies, because as much as you think you’ll never forget what’s in them, trust me, you will.
Arugula Garlic Scape Pesto
Note : My hope is that you will use this recipe as a jumping point, and discover delicious new pesto combinations throughout the summer.
2-3 cups of arugula
3-4 garlic scapes cut into 2-inch sections (later in the season use 2-3 peeled garlic cloves). You can always add more, if you are looking for a stronger garlic flavor.
¾ cup raw sunflower seeds, covered in cool water and soaked for 1-2 hours, then drained
About 1 cup olive oil
½ cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (optional)
Salt to taste
Fill your food processor or blender (food processors are better for the job) with arugula. Add the sunflower seeds, ½ teaspoon of salt, and scapes. Start the machine, and drizzle in olive oil while it is running. Blend while adding oil, until it reaches a consistency you like. Taste the pesto, and add more salt or garlic to taste. Stir in the cheese. Keep in my mind that if you are adding cheese, cheese is salty.
Pesto will keep in a covered container in the fridge for about a week (if it gets darker on top, it’s okay. Just stir before using).
For the romantics:
Pestos can be made using elbow strength and a mortar and pestle. Start with the greens and salt, add the garlic after you’ve creamed the greens pretty well, and chop the nuts finely with a knife before adding. The salt will draw liquid from the greens, helping to cream them.