January 19, 2012

Pesto: No Basil Required

It seems that food critics and regular reviewers like ourselves often look for one thing when judging a chef's handiwork: originality.  Sure, it's great to produce the BEST burger, or the BEST spaghetti, but it is way more fun to find something delicious and unique.  And, since there is a lot to be said for the comfort of regularity, we tend to gravitate towards twists on the norm.  Take a dish we all know and love and add a special touch, and it's likely to be a hit.  On that note, I recently found myself making a pesto with spinach and parsley- a bit off the beaten path of basil, parmesan, and pine nuts.

Pesto forms a great base for a variety of dishes, from pastas or toppings for meat or fish, to stuffings or dips.  They're creamy, richly flavorful, and their finely processed form lends them an ability to permeate.  This past week, I made two different forms of pesto which both strayed from the classic recipe, but inspired me to think of pesto as much more versatile.

Both recipes were found via TasteSpotting, and adapted a bit.  First up, a broccoli based sauce!

Broccoli Pesto: inspired by The Flour Sack
makes about 1 cup

2-3 cups chopped, loosely packed broccoli
1/2 lemon, juice and zest
1-2 ounces parmesan, shredded/grated
2 small cloves garlic
1 Tbsp. olive oil
salt + pepper

The great thing about pesto is how easy it is to make.  For this version, there is a short cooking step, but usually it's just shove in your food processor and go.  However, even for this one, as long as you can boil water, you're halfway there.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add your broccoli florets.  While they're getting nice and soft, add the other ingredients directly to your food processor.  I used a mini processor, just because it's easier to clean and I wasn't making a gallon of pesto.

Let the broccoli boil for 5-7 minutes until completely cooked through and bright green.  You can alternately steam or microwave your broccoli, and you don't even need to use the fresh stuff- frozen is more than fine.  Once it's done, drain well, reserving 1/2 cup of the water in case you need to thin it out a bit.  Add the broccoli to the food processor and blend until everything is very finely chopped and well incorporated (you may have to add the veggies in two or three batches).

Broccoli Pesto
We incorporated it into a pasta dish with white beans, more broccoli, and some pan-seared shrimp.  It actually had a very subtle broccoli flavor, and I imagine if you added an additional flavor or two (basil, parsley, walnuts, or  roasted red peppers to name a few) you'd be able to sneak this onto any picky palate's plate.  We actually love broccoli though, so enjoyed eating it in multiple forms all in one dish.

Our second batch of pesto was used in an entirely different way, although I imagine it would also go well in a Mexican inspired pasta salad.  This time, the base for the sauce was swiss chard, a beautiful green that we don't eat enough of (I'm not sure winter is its best season).  Chard has a much more subtle flavor than any herb you might typically use in a pesto, and is similar to spinach.

Swiss Chard Pesto: stolen adapted from Tasty Kitchen
makes about one cup

5 large chard leaves, stems discarded and roughly chopped
1 jalapeno (seeded or not-- depends on how hot you like it!)
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds (no shells)
2 small garlic cloves
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 large lime, zest and juice
2 Tbsp. hot sauce (I used Frank's Red Hot)

No cooking required here- chard is fairly delicate and has great flavor raw (unlike thicker greens like collards and turnip greens).  Just chop it up and stuff it in the food processor with the other ingredients.

You may need to add additional olive oil or water if your pesto is too thick or hard to blend.  My processor didn't love the pumpkin seeds, so you may want to add them slowly at the end if you have a temperamental machine.  The final product should be fairly thick, if you use it in the same way that we did.  For a salad, you could certainly thin it out even further.

Since I loved the way I saw it served in my inspiration post, we did the same-- as a topping to sweet potato and black bean tacos.  It actually acted in place of guacamole, with a texture that made it easier to spread over the entire taco, as well as providing a nuttier, earthier heat.  The prominent note was lime, but the quantity of juice and zest could definitely be reduced.  To give it even more of a guacamole inspired flavor, a handful of cilantro would work great.

This little pesto "experiment" definitely changed my own definition of the stuff- you can almost mix anything up together and call it pesto.  These two renditions will likely be used again, since they went perfectly with their respective dishes.  As always, we invite you to share your own crazy (or classic!) pesto recipes in the comments.


  1. Both of these pestos sound incredible. I am definitely trying the broccoli pesto this weekend!

  2. Just had to let you know I made the broccoli pesto and I absolutely LOVED it.

    I posted about it on my blog :-) Thank you for the recipe. I am having it again tonight!