Spinach Pesto

By Ann Fulton

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Easy, accessible, and endlessly versatile, this flavorful pesto is especially ideal when fresh herbs aren't available. It stays green, too!

Easy, accessible, and endlessly versatile, this flavorful pesto is especially ideal when fresh herbs aren’t available. Perfect for adding flavor to pasta, pizza and flatbread, sauces, sandwiches, and so much more, the simple recipe can be customized with a variety of nuts, seeds, and cheeses. Plus it maintains its vibrant green color and freezes well!

 

 

There are quite a few pesto recipes on this site, and you may be wondering: isn’t one enough? 

In theory, the answer is yes. One good pesto is all you need to provide fresh flavor and colorful appeal to a wide variety of dishes. 

But because this versatile sauce has the power to add something special to so many everyday foods, from a noontime turkey sandwich and quick bowl of noodles to baked fish, chicken, soup, and more, you may want-or even need-more recipes. 

To be sure, basil pesto is traditional and certainly delicious, but we may not have a year-round abundance of the delicate herb. And though the popular backyard garden plant is adored by many, some aren’t as fond of its anise and pepper undertones.

So while the flavor will change slightly, a variety of readily available greens are willing to fill in!

Take spinach. Its merits are many.

First, baby spinach is readily available, inexpensive, and loaded with nutrients. As greens go, it’s more sweet than bitter, so it’s also widely appealing. 

Secondly, spinach pesto doesn’t discolor like its basil counterpart. With the latter, the herb’s naturally quicker oxidation process means that color it fleeting.  Spinach is different in this respect, which means you can enjoy the gorgeous green hue for many days.

Easy, accessible, and endlessly versatile, this flavorful pesto is especially ideal when fresh herbs aren't available. Perfect for adding flavor to pasta, pizza and flatbread, sauces, sandwiches, and so much more, the simple recipe can be customized with a variety of nuts, seeds, and cheeses. Plus it maintains its vibrant green color and freezes well!

If you made this pesto for the cheerful color alone, that wouldn’t be a bad thing!

Easy, accessible, and endlessly versatile, this flavorful pesto is especially ideal when fresh herbs aren't available. Perfect for adding flavor to pasta, pizza and flatbread, sauces, sandwiches, and so much more, the simple recipe can be customized with a variety of nuts, seeds, and cheeses. Plus it maintains its vibrant green color and freezes well!

Pasta is perhaps the most traditional way to enjoy pesto, and it makes for an easy dinner. A sprinkle of Parmesan, gruyere, or asiago cheese offers a lovely finishing touch. Sometimes I also stir in halved cherry tomatoes and cooked chicken, shrimp, or white beans.

 

Pesto does freeze well, although I’ve kept leftover spinach pesto in the refrigerator for over a week, and the color and flavor have remained vibrant. When I have just a little bit left, I often spread it on a warm dinner roll or crusty bread, mix it into rice, or make pesto mayo. I always eyeball the latter, stirring approximately one part pesto into two parts mayonnaise for a spread that adds something special to the likes of sandwiches, burgers, fish, chicken, and tomatoes.

Recently, I made portobello burgers, adding a thin spread of pesto mayo to the toasted bun, and it added lovely flavor. My kids love it when I make turkey paninis with mozzarella or provolone cheese, a slice of ham, and the pesto mayo. The spread is truly enough to add flair to something as simple as a turkey sandwich, and it can be made with any pesto, not just spinach pesto. 

I’ve briefly debated adding parsley or basil to the following recipe-a cup or so-to supply another dimension of flavor. And while you could do that, my intent is that this pesto will fill a void when you don’t have fresh herbs on hand.

In order to ramp up the flavor of this mild green, I tend to use gruyere or asiago cheese, although good old Parmesan will not let you down. If you’re feeling fancy, add a mix of these cheeses. I used a roughly 50-50 mix of gruyere and asiago in my last batch. 

The same goes for nuts. Though walnuts and pine nuts are pesto standbys, I frequently mix things up based on what I have on hand and to simply experiment with different flavors. 

For my last batch, I used salted, roasted cashews. I often use pumpkin or sunflower seeds (or a mix) in my pestos, and pecans and pistachios have found their way into my pestos on many occasions. Pesto is accommodating that way.

As for those nuts and seeds…to toast or not to toast?

I have run side-by-side taste tests with batches using raw nuts and raw nuts which I have toasted first. Though roasting brings out the best flavor and texture in nuts and seeds, when blended into the pesto, I’ve found the flavor difference to be negligible. In other words, I usually don’t bother. 

Easy, accessible, and endlessly versatile, this flavorful pesto is especially ideal when fresh herbs aren't available. Perfect for adding flavor to pasta, pizza and flatbread, sauces, sandwiches, and so much more, the simple recipe can be customized with a variety of nuts, seeds, and cheeses. Plus it maintains its vibrant green color and freezes well!

I love the use of gruyere cheese instead of the traditional Parmesan here, as it adds a burst of flavor to the mild spinach. Asiago is a worthy option, and a mix works well, although Parmesan may be used. For a vegan alternative, try ¼ cup of nutritional yeast

Easy, accessible, and endlessly versatile, this flavorful pesto is especially ideal when fresh herbs aren't available. Perfect for adding flavor to pasta, pizza and flatbread, sauces, sandwiches, and so much more, the simple recipe can be customized with a variety of nuts, seeds, and cheeses. Plus it maintains its vibrant green color and freezes well!

After processing the mixture to this point-still somewhat chunky-I begin to drizzle the olive oil through the feed tube. 

Easy, accessible, and endlessly versatile, this flavorful pesto is especially ideal when fresh herbs aren't available. It stays green, too!

Thick or thin? Why I use less olive oil than traditional recipes:

In all my pesto recipes, I mention that I add just enough olive oil to create a thick spread. I find the resulting pesto to taste more flavorful, have more appealing texture, and be less likely to separate. The thicker, less oily pesto is also more versatile as it can be used as a spread or thinned with pasta cooking water, broth, or even a bit of warm water and an extra pinch of seasoning. 

The addition of pasta cooking water is my favorite, as the starch in the water lends a certain creaminess, and the salted water doesn’t weaken the flavor. If inclined, you could actually freeze leftover pasta cooking water for this purpose. 

Of course, if you prefer a thinner pesto straight out of the food processor, you may absolutely drizzle in more olive oil. Optionally, you could experiment with chicken or vegetable broth, a dry white wine, or even some aquafaba (the fancy name for the liquid in the can of chickpeas). In any of these cases, I would use at least a quarter cup of oil before further thinning to avoid a watery pesto. 

Easy, accessible, and endlessly versatile, this flavorful pesto is especially ideal when fresh herbs aren't available. It stays green, too!

Pesto freezes beautifully…

I always have jars of pesto in the freezer. Some people like to freeze the pesto in ice cube trays for little amounts that thaw quickly when needed. I often use the pesto in pasta, so I tend to freeze in small jars. Then I scoop the pesto into a bowl and stir in enough cooking liquid to thin the pasta. In general, I use about a half cup of pesto per half pound of pasta. So, freeze in containers that allow you to use it in a variety of ways.

For the record, I recently thawed a larger jar only to use a small portion. I refroze the jar, and when I thawed yet again several weeks later, the pesto was no worse for the wear. 

Easy, accessible, and endlessly versatile, this flavorful pesto is especially ideal when fresh herbs aren't available. Perfect for adding flavor to pasta, pizza and flatbread, sauces, sandwiches, and so much more, the simple recipe can be customized with a variety of nuts, seeds, and cheeses. Plus it maintains its vibrant green color and freezes well!      

Spinach Pesto
Yield: ~1⅓ cups
This versatile sauce adds fresh flavor and healthful appeal to a wide variety of basic ingredients, elevating simple meals with ease. It's especially convenient in the colder months, when the more traditionally used basil is not abundant-and the color stays green!
Ingredients
  • 3 cups firmly packed spinach (4 to 4½ ounces)
  • ½ cup (2 ounces) chopped pecans or walnuts (or a mix*)
  • ½ cup (2 ounces) finely grated gruyere (could use asiago, Parmesan, or a mix)
  • 1½ tablespoon (22ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice**
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (could use 3 if small)
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt and several turns of the pepper mill
  • ⅓ cup (75ml) olive oil
Instructions

Add the spinach, nuts, cheese, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper to a food processor. Pulse several times until the mixture is chopped but still somewhat chunky. Scrape down the sides, and then turn the processor on and drizzle the oil through the feed tube. (I like to use just enough oil to make a spreadable pesto. If you prefer a thinner pesto you may add additional oil.) Process until the pesto reaches your desired consistency, stopping to scrape down the sides as necessary. Tip: When you remove the pesto from the processor, stir in any lemon juice or residual olive oil that may have seeped under the blade.

At this point the pesto is ready, but it may be stored in the refrigerator until ready to use, and the flavor will improve over time. The pesto freezes well, too.

Notes

*I don’t bother to toast the nuts (although you can) as I’ve done comparisons and it’s hard to discern a difference. I’ve also mixed up the nuts, using what I have on hand, from salted roasted cashews to a combination of nuts and seeds.

**I initially used 1 tablespoon of lemon juice in this recipe and bumped it up a bit. You may start with one and add to taste if you’re not sure. Those who really enjoy the bright flavor may enjoy a full 2 tablespoons. (Note that the flavors will mellow and meld as the pesto sits.)

For a slightly different flavor, you could replace 1 cup of the spinach with basil-or even try half spinach, half kale.

A pinch of red pepper flakes offers a lovely addition.

The pesto will keep in the refrigerator for at least a week and freezes very well. Spinach pesto also browns far more slowly than basil pesto, so it continues to look (and taste) vibrant for longer than you may expect.

Thicker pesto works well as a spread. As mentioned above, you may add more oil if desired. However, if you’d like to thin the pesto for other uses, pasta cooking water works especially well, as does chicken or vegetable broth, a bit of white wine, or even plain water. (Tip: hot liquid is easier to stir in when pesto is cold.) When thinning with water, you may wish to add an extra pinch or two of salt, to taste.

The Fountain Avenue Kitchen https://fountainavenuekitchen.com/

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Gina Plain

    Delicious!! I had all ingredients on hand and was looking for a way to use extra spinach! Thank you!

    Reply