The Cook Awakening


April 2, 2011
Posted in: Recipes

The Pacific Northwest is heavy with green. This is my second spring here, and while I find myself a little tired of the rain and gray skies (okay, a lot tired), I’m claiming it as my favorite season in Portland. The ground is saturated and verdant, and the riotous Mardi Gras parade of blooms leaves me breathless and in love. The contrast of bright colors amongst deep greens brings to mind fresh pesto with colorful vegetables to me, hence this article. It feels apropos to this time of fresh, new growth.

I choose to eat a low carb diet for health reasons – both specifically for health challenges, and because I feel it supports my overall wellbeing. My clients who also choose this lifestyle at some point in their process often hit a wall. A wall of boredom. “I’m so tired of meat and vegetables. I want some variety! Please! Some flavor and texture other than… meat and vegetables.” Even the clients who still eat grains and potatoes will feel this at times. Cutting out the unhealthy versions of any foods can leave a palate trained by processed junk unsatisfied at times.

There are many remedies to the problem. Alternative low carb flours for baking, nut and seed crackers for a little crunch, stevia sweetened chocolate are some of my favorites. But they all take effort and time. They’re certainly worthwhile to make for special occasions and when you have some leisure time and extra energy on your hands, but how often is that for most of us? I find something I can make once that will last me a few weeks, is easy to use and has multiple applications is a necessity.

Enter pesto. While it feels like a spring and summer sauce, truly, I make and use it year round. I have always loved the classic Italian basil mixture, usually made like this (recipe courtesy of The Food Network except in parenthesis, photos courtesy of yours truly):

Classic Pesto


  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves (or other herbs or greens)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts (or other seeds or nuts)
  • 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino cheese (optional, or other sharp grating cheese, or miso)

Combine the basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor

and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

If using immediately, add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth.

Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese (if using).

If freezing, transfer to an air-tight container and drizzle remaining oil over the top. (Label and date it.)

Freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw and stir in cheese. (One month later, this pesto is still green. No need to use extra oil when made with greens other than basil!)

That’s a fine recipe. Make sure as many of the ingredients as possible are organic, that your pine nuts aren’t sourced from China, and use a raw and/or sheep’s milk dry cheese, Celtic sea salt, and you’ve got a pretty healthy and tasty sauce. If you don’t do well with dairy, leave out the cheese. If you miss the flavor and feel good about fermented soy, add a little miso to replace the salty flavor.

Pasta is the traditional pairing for this, but spaghetti squash or warm kelp noodles will support the herb paste as well. And be vastly improved by it.

That’s where pesto stops for most people. Pesto pasta, the Italian classic.

Eating that every night will lead to boredom eventually, too.

My first diversion from the pesto pasta rut was in my early twenties cooking for a financial district cafe/catering establishment in San Francisco. I learned to cook on the job. My boss suggested I make a very simple, pureed yellow summer squash soup, just onions, squash, broth and salt, and served with a dollop of pesto in the center.

The artist in my soul fell apart. Bright contrasting colors and flavors, the bitter and sharp herbs and garlic mixed with the bland sweetness of the pureed vegetables. So simple, elegant, and unbeatably delicious.

We also had pesto pizza on the menu in the early 80’s, another revelation to me. Green pizza! Here it is as I make it today, with a gluten-free sourdough crust.

The biggest departure for me wasn’t the unusual applications however, it was the ingredients.  There was no fresh basil in her pesto recipe. All the green was spinach, with a small handful of dried pesto thrown in to make it “legal”.

It was not lacking in flavor.

At a nutrition conference many years later I attended a wild crafted herb workshop. The women leading the session were from upstate New York and showed us photos of a range of herbs, some of which I’d heard and some less familiar – lamb’s quarters, purslane, dandelion, nettles, miner’s lettuce, and wild onion amongst them. They suggested what I was expecting – that you could sauté these greens, scatter them into salads, and…. make pesto with them.

That’s when it all fell into place for me, the significance and versatility of pesto. You could make it with anything green. And you could put it in any dish you wanted.

Shoulds are very tricky in life. They may begin as well meaning encouragements to improve whatever they’re applied to, but they often lead to guilt and restriction. This is true of efforts toward health, and it’s also true of cooking. When I lost that last remnant of what pesto should be made of and used for, something really woke up in my kitchen.

Over the last few years I’ve made pesto with any mixture of: basil, kale (curly and dino), dandelion, arugula, collards, spinach, cilantro, mint, oregano, flat leaf parsley, fennel fronds, and chard. I’m looking forward to making nettle pesto, but haven’t done so yet. I’ve read you have to blanche the nettles first. Different greens have different levels of moisture, and will give you different textures in the final sauce.

If you’ve made a traditional pesto before, you know the basil turns brown easily. Most of these other greens don’t have that problem, they stay vibrant and true, even when cooked.

I’ve used pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, and pumpkin seeds in my pesto. I don’t know why you couldn’t use any nut or seed that strikes your fancy and is available in your pantry. They all have different flavors and qualities, but when you let go of the “shoulds” in your mind, these differences become interesting to notice, rather than hindrances.

The constants in my pesto are greens/herbs, olive oil, garlic and salt. I tend to like at least a handful of basil along with the alternative greens, but not always. Mint and cilantro don’t need basil. I sometimes add a little lemon juice if the flavor seems a little flat.

If you’re new to making pesto, by all means follow the recipe above using the replacement greens and seeds to start with. But I invite you to allow yourself to prepare your sauce by feel, sight, smell, and taste. What do you like? If you like a more liquid sauce, add more olive oil. A sharper flavor? Please, increase the garlic! Something that adds more body to a dish? Use more nuts or greens. Play with your food. Recipes are simply suggestions to pique your creativity.

I make a lot at a time, often a quart or two. I use it consistently enough that I freeze it in pint sized containers, but if you’re not sure you’d use it fast enough I recommend freezing it in ice cube trays. Pop the cubes out and store them in zip top baggies and take out just what you’ll use at any given time.

The constant in how I use pesto? The dishes are savory and not sweet. And that’s it. I’ve used pesto on or in: pasta (or pasta alternatives); pizza; soup; stew; quiche; frittata; flan; scrambled eggs; omelets; savory pancakes and bread pudding; grilled vegetables, fish, chicken, beef, pork, and lamb; mayonnaise; toast; sauteed and steamed vegetables (it’s especially good with green beans, zucchini and asparagus); hummus; mixed in the egg stage of the breading of egg plant and chicken tenders;… and the list goes on.

Here’s a low carb version of savory bread pudding with pesto and coconut flour bread.

Remember, usually the greens you use in pesto are raw. Add them at the end of the cooking process, where possible. This is a nutrient dense supplement, full of chlorophyl and all the other benefits the particular green you’ve used contains. It’s a beautiful addition to the GAPS diet, where I worry about the loss of nutrition in the long cooked vegetables. Pesto, being finely ground, eases the digestion of the fibers, and I feel good about adding it to the digestible bone broth soups.

If you get bored with what I’ve offered, you can always add another power flavor, like a handful of raw or kalamata olives, a handful of sun-dried tomatoes, capers, … the permutations are endless. As Nora Gedgaudas would say “don’t get me started!”

Proud to be a part of Real Food Wednesday!

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 2nd, 2011 at 4:27 am and is filed under Recipes. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


2 Responses to “Pesto!”

  1. Ferienwohnung Says:


    Wow. This blog really helps me. Thanks a lot!…

  2. Tawny Says:

    Great blog post! I’m looking forward to experimenting with different greens and different applications of pesto, yum! Now, I must get to the garden and harvest that basil.

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