Quite possibly the most versatile pesto ever, this simple recipe will make delicious use out of a variety of healthy greens and can be enjoyed in so many ways!
I adore this pesto for so many reasons.
Sure there’s the fact that homemade pesto really, really does taste so much better than store-bought. As always, I support the occasional shortcut to ensure dinner gets on the table. But if you’re willing to invest 15 to 20 minutes from time to time, you’ll be able to stock your freezer with this flavor-boosting condiment for a myriad of uses throughout the year. (More on the possibilities later!)
So why this pesto?
Regular readers have likely noticed several other pesto recipes on this blog already, and I still make them regularly. But choices are good, and the following variation on the conventional preparation offers many.
Traditionally, the vibrant green sauce is made with basil, garlic, pine nuts, salt, a hard cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano, and olive oil－but there’s infinite wiggle room within this framework.
For starters, basil isn’t the only leaf that produces a tasty spread. The list of worthy replacements is impressive and lends well to working with what you enjoy and have on hand.
And that’s just the beginning.
Don’t have cheese or prefer a vegan sauce? The following recipe has you covered.
Cooking for someone with a nut allergy or don’t have the usual walnuts or expensive pine nuts? There are reliable alternatives.
Looking to cut down on fat grams? You have options.
In terms of flexibility, this recipe checks all the boxes. The flavor will vary based on which ingredients you choose, but rest assured that the final outcome will capture the essence of classic pesto and be every bit as versatile.
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Sweet pea greens have been a recent favorite, while peppery arugula brings a little extra zip to the table. Beet, carrot, and radish greens, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, and spring mixes will all yield slightly different flavor profiles without straying too far from the classic pesto flavor that can be enjoyed in so many ways. (Though I haven’t tried, I wouldn’t recommend mild lettuces or those with a very high water content, like iceberg and romaine for this pesto.)
Additionally, I stray from an overly liberal use of olive oil that is customary in most pestos, opting for a thicker spread that I find more flavorful and versatile – plus it offers all the health benefits of olive oil without as much fat. It can be thinned with more olive oil if you prefer, although when pairing with pasta, I find several spoonfuls of the salted pasta cooking water works especially well.
So many ways to enjoy pesto
- Stir a spoonful or two into mayonnaise for a sublime spread for sandwiches and burgers, a dip for oven fries (sweet potato or regular), or topping for simply grilled chicken or fish.
- Or use the plain pesto as a simple sauce for baked or grilled chicken or fish.
- Add a dollop to your mix for meatloaf or turkey burgers.
- Mash pesto into a baked potato in place of butter.
- One-Pan Pesto Chicken and Veggies
- Pesto Baked Chicken
- Strawberry Pesto Salad
- Toss with freshly cooked pasta and your favorite grilled, roasted, or sautéed vegetables.
- Pesto Pasta Pizza
- Garden Pesto Grilled Pizza (bad photo but delicious recipe😊)
- Balsamic Pesto Tomato Sauce
- Toss pesto with vine-ripened tomatoes. Add chopped, fresh mozzarella for an added dimension.
- Stir a spoonful of pesto into soups and stews, especially tomato-based recipes, to add complementary flavor and complexity.
- If you have leftover corn on the cob, cut it off the cobs and lightly coat the kernels with pesto. Add tomatoes and cucumbers or leftover grilled zucchini for a summery salad. Add beans to make it a vegetarian meal－or flaked canned tuna or salmon for easy pantry protein additions.
- Instead of butter, spread pesto over a warm baguette or crusty roll.
- Doctor up store-bought marinara sauce with a spoonful of pesto.
- Similarly, a dollop will add fresh, herby flavor to tuna, pasta, macaroni, and potato salads.
- Stir some into freshly cooked rice, quinoa, or grain of choice.
- Use it as the sauce for a bowl meal consisting of your favorite greens, grains, cooked or raw veggies, beans, and proteins－and then top with extras like nuts, seeds, chopped avocado, and feta or goat cheese.
- And an oldie but goodie, Grilled Pesto Veggiewich
As you can see from the list above, pesto complements a vast array of ingredients, so it’s an excellent item to reach for when you want to build flavorful, satisfying meals with what you have on hand.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the inspiration for the five recent batches of pesto I have made. (Yes, five－and one was a double batch!)
I’ve been signing up for a weekly farm box from Alex Wenger of The Field’s Edge, a local farm that grows many of the typical garden vegetables we know and love. They also happen to be a research farm that specializes in growing heirloom and exotic vegetables and a few other odds and ends.
So while we’ve enjoyed the usual potatoes, asparagus, and spinach, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by purple sweet potatoes, snow pea greens, and fresh bamboo. Extras like dried lemon verbena (lovely in mint tea or lemonade), edible flowers (for garnish or table decoration), smoked scallion salt, and game bird eggs (like chukar and quail) have also filled the boxes.
As an interesting side note, before the pandemic hit, 100% of Alex’s customers were restaurants. When that industry came to an abrupt halt, he quickly pivoted to a model focused 100% on supplying and delivering to individuals at home.
Alex includes a weekly update as to what’s happening on the farm along with creative yet simple recipe inspiration that relies solely on the contents of the weekly box. I’ve whipped up eggs in a potato nest, shortcut kimchi, bowlfuls of salad and lots of roasted veggies. And pesto, of course!
The preparation tends to be simple, as the fresh-from-the-field ingredients need very little to make them shine.
This is not a paid advertisement by the way, but for those who live in the Lancaster area and may be interested in the farm boxes, you can message Alex through his Instagram page or email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Conveniently, the boxes may be ordered week by week, and one need not commit to a box every week.
- 4 ounces (or 4 packed cups) arugula, snow pea tendrils, fresh spring mix, or other leafy greens of choice (see choices mentioned in post)
- ½ cup raw sunflower seeds or nuts of choice*
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt and several grinds of the pepper mill
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ⅓ to ½ cup (75-112ml) olive oil**
- Optional: 2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast, a few sprigs of fresh herbs like basil, parsley, mint, or chives
- Add the greens to a food processor, and then sprinkle the seeds or nuts and garlic overtop. Pulse a few times to coarsely chop, and then process in a few longer bursts; you want the mixture to be evenly chopped but still have some texture. Scrape down the sides, and then sprinkle the salt, pepper, lemon juice, and optional cheese or fresh herbs over the top. Pulse several times to incorporate. Finally, with the machine running, pour the oil in a fine stream through the feed tube. Process until pesto is mostly smooth. (I like to keep just a hint of texture.) At this point you may adjust seasonings to taste, if desired, with an extra pinch of salt or squeeze of lemon juice.
- Use immediately or transfer the mixture to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator, where the pesto will keep for up to one week. The top layer will brown slightly over time but will still taste good. (See tip.)
- For longer storage, transfer the pesto to freezer-safe containers or jars***, add a thin layer of olive oil to cover the surface (optional but fends off freezer burn), put on the lids, and then label with the date and freeze. The frozen pesto will keep for about a year－if you manage to save it for that long!
*Nuts and seeds: I’ve used a variety of raw nuts and seeds, from cashews, walnuts, pine nuts, and pecans to sunflower seeds or a mix of several. For my last batch, I used a combination of cashews and sunflower seeds. Although you may toast the raw nuts first, I usually skip this step and do not find the flavor to be lacking.
**The precise amount of oil depends on how thick or thin you’d like the final pesto to be. I prefer the consistency of a spread (perfect for pesto bread, pizza, or spreading on salmon or chicken), which can easily be thinned with pasta cooking water, broth, white wine, or even water when a thinner condiment is desired.
***I like to freeze the fresh pesto in small jars (about ¼-½ cup in size), but you may also freeze it in ice cube trays. In this case, transfer the pesto cubes to an airtight freezer bag or storage container once frozen. Small containers of pesto thaw rather quickly, and the process can be expedited by soaking the container in a bowl of cool water.
Extras: As noted, cheese is purely optional in this recipe. I have used it, but more times than not, I skip it. If you choose to use it, you could go with classic Parmesan or branch out with another hard cheese like asiago. Or use nutritional yeast for a vegan alternative. Herbs are a lovely addition if you have them. When lucky enough to have pea greens to use as the pesto base, I snip a sprig or two of mint from my garden, as the flavor complements beautifully. Similarly, basil, parsley, and even a small amount of chives add bright, fresh flavor to various other greens. Finally, if you’re feeling industrious, you could grate the zest of one lemon into the bowl of the food processor for more lemony flavor without additional tartness. Rest assured, however, that the pesto is fantastic as is!
Using with pasta: I find ½-cup portions to be the perfect amount for 8 ounces of pasta. When making thicker pesto with less oil, as I do with this recipe, I thin the thawed pesto with some of the pasta cooking liquid before tossing it with the cooked and drained pasta. Simple pesto pasta is delicious as is, although a handful of halved grape or cherry tomatoes or slow roasted tomatoes, a sprinkle of nuts or seeds, a cup or so of leftover, chopped chicken or shrimp, roughly chopped baby spinach, and/or some slivered, fresh basil will create an especially delightful meal.
Tip: I recently mentioned my newfound trick that prevents leftover guacamole from turning brown: simply placing a slice or two of peeled onion in the bowl and covering it magically maintains the dip’s bright green color. (No need to completely cover the surface with the onion; just lay the onion on top.) Since leftover pesto tends to brown, too (it will still taste great, by the way), I recently stored an unused portion with a wedge of onion. To my delight, the pesto remained green! Alternatively, a thin lemon slice placed on the surface helps to maintain the fresh color.