As it turns out, basil isn’t the real reason pesto is so impossibly delicious. It’s not the pine nuts either. It’s really the trifecta of hearty roasted nuts, salty aged cheese and grassy olive oil that makes pesto taste so good.
Experimenting with alternative greens, cheeses and nuts is a great way to get more delicious pesto into your life without breaking the bank. After all, when you think about pesto as a simple ratio (instead of a strict recipe,) the sky’s the limit.
Here’s a quick how-to guide to make pesto with just about anything.
The basil, in fact, is completely replaceable with greens as crazy delicious as broccoli rabe, arugula, mint, kale and collards. The deep greens of your choosing provide the most distinctive flavor in your pesto. Different vegetables require a little different preparation before being pesto-ized.
Tender herbs and greens, such as parsley, cilantro, arugula, basil and mint, can be used raw. But for tougher, more fibrous greens (such as kale or collards) you’ll want to quickly blanche them in boiling, salted water to soften them. Then, drain completely (so you don’t add an unintended water to your pesto). To go a little further, roasting veggies such as scallions, onions or broccoli rabe before throwing them into your pesto blend bolsters flavor all the more.
Lastly, there’s no rule that says you can only use one veggie in your pesto, so mix and match those little bags of leftover greens in your crisper drawer to make sweet new combos.
SUGGESTIONS: Parsley, cilantro, chervil, arugula, dandelion greens, broccoli, broccoli rabe, scallions, garlic scapes, ramp tops, kale, collards, mustard greens, radish tops, beet greens, spinach, watercress, peas.
Being curious about cool flavor combinations is as good a reason as any to dive into creative pesto combinations, but there are other great reasons — including bypassing the expense of those classic pesto pine nuts.
We’re pretty sure if you try a few new nuts in your pesto repertoire, you’ll never feel the need to buy pine nuts again. There is a whole world of tasty nuts and seeds out there that add rich earthiness to your pesto, just toast them first, cool them completely so they don’t wilt raw greens and buzz them into pesto bliss.
SUGGESTIONS: Walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts.
The rich, aged, distinctive flavor of Parmesan is certainly a perk in traditional pesto, but it isn’t the only option; any hard, salty, aged cheese lends that same craveable flavor. If you’re interested in making a dairy-free pesto, omit the cheese, but be sure to increase the quantity of nuts and seeds to compensate.
SUGGESTIONS: Pecorino Romano, aged manchego, aged gouda, aged cheddar, cotija, Grana Padano, aged Asiago.
Greens, cheese and nuts are pesto’s biggest players, but all the other supporting ingredient roles can be swapped out, too. Olive oil is traditionally used in pesto, but a neutral oil could be used if you didn’t want to add the grassy flavor olive oil adds. Alternatively, you could use walnut, hazelnut or even chili-infused oils to perk up the flavors.
The bright, zesty flavors in pesto typically are the result of a little squeeze of lemon juice and zest, but any citrus or vinegar perks up your otherwise rich, deeply flavored pesto. As for the garlic, just leave it alone. There are some parts of tradition you just don’t want to mess with.
COLLARD GREENS + KALE PESTO
Makes 2 cups
- 1 small bunch collard greens, stems removed
- 1 small bunch Tuscan kale, stems removed
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1/2 cup (64g) Parmesan, grated
- 1 cup (118 mL) olive oil
- 1/2 cup (64g) unsalted, roasted peanuts
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest, finely grated
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- Black pepper, to taste
Cook collard greens and kale in a large pot of boiling salted water until bright green and tender, about 45 seconds. Transfer to a bowl of ice water (this stops the cooking and helps lock in the color). Drain and squeeze out as much liquid as possible (to avoid a watery sauce).
Coarsely chop greens and place in a food processor. Add garlic, Parmesan, oil, peanuts, lemon zest and lemon juice; process on low speed until a coarse but well-blended mixture forms (a little texture is part of the selling point). Season with salt and plenty of pepper.
Serves: 16 | Serving Size: 2 tablespoons