How to make pesto with crazy greens

Embrace the onslaught of winter greens by giving them a summer spin.

I love herbs and garlic and nuts and cheese and olive oil all quite a lot on their own. But mash them up together into pesto and it’s fireworks. And one needn’t stop with just basil. Warm weather has me loading the mortar with all things green from the market – from predictable basil and peas to anything edible growing in the garden. This past summer it was all about lemon balm, which was growing rampantly and turns out to be a pesto superstar.

Pesto has had a long time in the spotlight but manages to stay relevant because of its inherent flexibility – it can constantly reinvent itself.

Which brings us to winter greens. Swapping basil for leafy greens in pesto is really delicious and is great for a number of reasons: It’s a quick way to get greens into the mouths of greens naysayers; they're bulkier than basil and thus provide larger yields that are easier and affordable (and can be frozen); and it’s an easy way to add variety and brightness to your cool-weather cooking.

Here are the basic pesto proportions for using greens, with a few notes:

Nuts: I haven’t used pine nuts much since they crept back up to essentially the price of gold, but I haven’t missed them. Hemp seeds are a great swap for pine nuts, but raw almonds are my go-to pesto nut. I’ve had delicious luck with cashews, walnuts and even pumpkin and sunflower seeds.

Cheese: The times I’ve omitted the Parmesan have all been delicious. The times I’ve swapped Parmesan with another aged hard cheese were fun. (Though be careful with softer cheeses as they can become creamy and drown the other flavors.) For vegans who like the suggestion of cheese, a dash of nutritional yeast gives pesto the same kind of depth and balance that cheese provides.

Greens: Experiment with any greens you have or like to use; try kale, chard, collards and rapini. Even broccoli is great. Granted, some may be more adventurous than others. (I confess my pesto with beet greens was good and interesting, but the grass-meets-dirt flavor was best in small doses.) The lemon juice helps brighten the earthier and/or bitter flavor of stronger greens; more assertive greens may respond well to a quick blanching in boiling water first.

The pepper factor: I also always add some roasted jalapeno to pesto, it gives it a smoky bang that makes it perfectly complete. (You can roast one on the open flame of a stovetop, wipe off the charred skin and then taste to know how much to use since they all vary in heat. And then wash your hands very thoroughly.)

Winter Pesto

• 1/2 cup chopped nuts
• 3 cups kale or other winter greens
• 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
• 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic
• 1 teaspoons lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon salt
• Roasted jalapeno pepper, to taste (optional)

You can go old-school and use a mortar and pestle, but feel free to use a food processor instead. Add everything to the bowl of the machine and puree until smooth; add more oil for consistency and season to taste with salt.

Pesto can be used right away or kept in the fridge for three days. Alternatively, you can freeze it for up to three months.

And by the way, I'm not the first TreeHugger to extol the virtues of quirky pesto:
Weekday vgetarian: kale pesto
Weekday vegetarian: asparagus pesto
Nettle pesto recipe (yes, stinging nettles!)

Tags: Cooking | Fruits & Vegetables | Vegan | Vegetarian | Winter

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