I’m sitting on the couch, wrapped tightly in a blanket as a storm brews in the grey sky outside. Raindrops splatter against muddied glass and I watch them fall, flickering in shadow to the ground below. My eyes are also flickering as I gaze over my hand-written recipe notes; mostly due to lack of sleep, a banging headache and post-jovial fatigue from the Saturday past.
Ah, Saturday. I had all good intentions of writing a huge post this weekend, full of recipes for chocolate and minted berry pavlova, Moroccan carrot salad, honey balsamic roast beetroot with goat’s cheese, cumin-spiced pumpkin dip and hazelnut praline. Don’t get me wrong, all were successfully created, tested and consumed with slices of herbed roast beef, roast potatoes and fresh Turkish bread. The only problem is… well, we washed everything down with quality Pinot Noir and great conversation, and I was so engrossed in spending time with everyone that I couldn’t be bothered with photographs. Especially when I was dragged upstairs for a never-ending game of Cowboys and Aliens before being ‘pecked’ in the stairwell by a plastic bird on a stick.
Anyway, back to today’s post. Due to lack of photography I’ve decided to leave the above-mentioned recipes for another time when I can provide a complete, methodical post, but be assured, all recipes have been dutifully scribbled onto blotched paper with accurate ingredient lists for later use. Today’s post however, is for a staple in our household cuisine: the incredibly versatile, herbaceous and fragrant Pesto. Though there are arguably endless ways that you can create a tasty mix, my favourites in recent months have been 1) rocket, basil and pine nut, and 2) parsley, walnut and lemon zest (with or without chilli flakes). The latter was invented when I had a glut of parsley in the fridge, collected on a recent trip to the farmer’s market. It ended up being a delicious combination, bright green in colour and wonderful when drizzled over freshly-toasted, blackened ciabatta.
Below you’ll find recipes for both of my concoctions in quantities that suit my family, however if you want to change, substitute or add more of anything, then definitely do so! One of the benefits of pesto is that it’s an extremely forgiving condiment. You can substitute almost any soft, fragrant herb or greenery with different nuts, chilli, citrus, oil or roasted vegetables (like semi-dried tomatoes or roasted capsicum) and it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have a jar of deliciousness in under ten minutes. Just be careful with the garlic, and maintain the rule that it’s always better to add less of a strong flavour from the outset rather than trying to frantically save a garlic-soaked pesto with leftover chopped spinach from the vegetable box.
Rocket and Basil Pesto
Makes approx one and a half cups
- 2 cups tightly packed rocket leaves (arugula)
- 2 cups tightly packed basil leaves
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (make sure you have a little more on hand, if required)
- 3 tbsp toasted pine nuts
- 2 tbsp toasted cashews
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1-2 minced garlic cloves
- sea salt to taste
- optional: lemon zest, to taste
Wash and thoroughly dry your rocket and basil leaves. Roughly chop and place in a food processor bowl. Add your garlic (I’d recommend adding one clove initially, as you can always add more later if required), olive oil, lemon zest (if using), 2 tbsp pine nuts and 1 tbsp cashews. Pulse until your oil begins to colour and ingredients are mixed thoroughly. Add in your Parmesan and pulse to combine – if the mixture seems a little thick for your liking, add more oil. Once at your desired consistency, taste and season with salt, if necessary.
Mix through extra whole nuts (I usually roughly chop my remaining cashews) then seal your mixture in a sterilised jar. If the solids in your mix are exposed at the top I’d recommend covering your pesto with a thin layer of fresh olive oil to preserve colour and freshness (any greenery exposed to the air with oxidise and darken). Your finished pesto will keep refrigerated for a couple of weeks, or if required, it can also be frozen (*see ‘notes’, below).
Parsley, Walnut and Lemon Pesto
Makes roughly one cup.
- 2 cups tightly packed flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
- 3/4 cup toasted walnuts, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1-2 minced garlic cloves
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp lemon zest
- sea salt
Wash and thoroughly dry your parsley leaves. Roughly chop and then place them in a food processor bowl with 1/2 cup walnuts, olive oil, garlic to taste, lemon juice and zest. Pulse until thoroughly combined, and if too thick for your liking, add more oil until the mixture reaches your desired consistency. Taste and season with salt, if necessary.
Add in your remaining 1/4 cup walnuts and stir to combine. Seal in a sterilised jar. As per basil pesto, mixture will keep in a sealed jar for a couple of weeks (*see ‘notes’ below for instructions on freezing).
- ‘Pesto’ is an abbreviation of ‘pestello’ in Italian where the recipe first originated. It means ‘pestle’, hinting back to traditional mortar-and-pestle preparation of the condiment in old Italian kitchens. You can still prepare small-batch pesto in a mortar and pestle if desired. It brings a beautiful rustic quality to the dish, and is great for the biceps (actually, maybe I should stick with this method more regularly).
- High quality oil is non-negotiable in pesto. I usually use extra virgin olive oil (my favourite oil at the moment is Australian Reserve Picual by Cobram Estate) but you can also substitute high quality macadamia oil, walnut oil or another oil of your choice that will compliment your chosen ingredients. I sometimes add a splash of walnut oil to the Parsley, Walnut and Lemon pesto which is deliciously fragrant.
- Great herbs/leaves for substitution in pesto include: spinach, rocket (arugula), coriander (cilantro), parsley, nettle and the traditional basil.
- If you’re using a stronger herb, such as coriander, use parsley as an extender to diffuse the flavour. It has a mellow, delicious flavour that will compliment rather than clashing.
- Good quality cheese is also a must for flavoursome pesto. Great substitutes for parmesan include: asagio, romano.
- Nut substitutes: my favourites are almonds (preferably blanched), walnuts, pine nuts and macadamias.
- If you love the flavour of garlic but find pure cloves to be too strong, use garlic chives. They add a bright green, fragrant hint of garlic without being overpowering. You can also experiment with green shallots if desired.
- *freezing: mixture can be frozen in ice-cube trays for up to three months. Just pop out a cube or two and defrost for spreading, or add straight to hot pasta as required.
My favourite uses for Pesto:
- I stuff field mushrooms with a mixture of breadcrumbs, a generous amount of pesto, crispy bacon & semi-dried tomatoes. Oven bake for 15-20 minutes (add a mixture of parmesan & mozzarella to the top for the last 5-10 minutes) at 180 degrees C for a deliciously juicy addition to any meal.
- Add it to grilled cheese sandwiches. My favourite is Rocket and Basil Pesto, mozzarella, sliced mushrooms, roma tomatoes and baby spinach on Turkish bread, grilled in the oven (or in a sandwich toaster, but I don’t have one) until the outside is crisp, the inside is molten and fragrant with basil oil and the mushrooms are tender. If I’m feeling lazy, homemade pesto with cheese is just as good!
- Add two generous tablespoons of pesto to hot al dente pasta with some of the cooking water then mix til well coated. Add in some roasted cherry tomatoes for a delicious dinner.
- Melt some pesto over the top of your roasted or steamed vegetables
- Spread it on grilled ciabatta for a tasty bread entree, topped with roasted cherry tomatoes (or alternatively, like garlic bread, spread pesto between the half-cut slices in a baguette, wrap in foil and toast it in a hot oven).
- Add it on top of your pizza. I particularly like pesto, roasted pumpkin, bacon and pine nuts with fresh goat’s feta and rocket.