When someone says pesto, my guess is that your brain immediately defaults to basil pesto, the kind traditionally made with basil, of course, plus pine nuts, Parmesan, olive oil, salt, pepper and maybe a squeeze of lemon. I mean, it’s classic for a reason: the recipe is perfect.
But the deeper I go in the plant-based direction, the more I realize that you can break down most pestos into five basic parts:
Vegetable (or Herb) + Olive Oil + Nuts + Lemon + Salt and Pepper. (Cheese: Optional)
Now I find myself making pestos out of virtually any vegetable. You’ve already read about broccoli pesto, one of my favorites, which I recently recreated using steamed asparagus in place of the broccoli.
I’ve also been very into arugula pesto (above, shown with chickpea fries), which seems to be the magic drizzle sauce that brings together every recipe in the next cookbook I’m working on. My friend Robin started making pesto with spinach, which began as an accident: “I didn’t have quite enough basil,” she told me, “So, I used baby spinach leaves to make up the difference.” Her girls were young then, and to this day she prepares it that way, to up the nutrition factor.
Even those smashed pea toasts we make all the time is a sort of pesto: peas + mint + lemon + olive oil + Parm. Thin that out with a little water and imagine how unbelievably good that would be on spaghetti!
It’s not just the vegetable that is interchangeable, either — the nuts are, too, which should delight anyone who has experienced sticker shock when picking up (then putting down) a container of pine nuts. You can use walnuts or almonds (shown above, whirled with basil, olive oil, and lemon)…
…or pepitas, which dance beautifully in the blender with cilantro, lime, and olive oil. The resulting cilantro pesto is my go-to for drizzling on black bean tacos.
Below are my general instructions for making pesto, but this is a good time to exercise those improvisational muscles!
About 4 cups cooked vegetables (broccoli, asparagus, peas, jarred roasted sweet red peppers) or greens (spinach, arugula, kale) or herbs (cilantro, parsley, or, of course, basil)
About 1/3 cup nuts such as almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, pistachios, or pepitas
About 1/2 cup olive oil
Squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
2-3 tablespoons Parmesan (optional)
1 clove of garlic, roughly chopped
Add the vegetables or herbs or greens (or a combination!), nuts, lemon (or lime), salt and pepper, and cheese (if using) to a blender. Process until everything is finely chopped.
Turn the blender on, then slowly stream in the oil through the top opening until the pesto is emulsified and brightly colored. If it is on the thick side, add a little water (pasta water is great for this, but if you only have tap, that will work, too), if it’s too thin, add more vegetables or greens. Keep tasting the pesto as you blend to add more salt or lemon or oil, or more water to thin it out. (This is more of an art than a science.)
Toss with pasta, drizzle on tacos, or spread on sandwiches.
(First and last photos by Christine Han.)