I enjoy eating fresh produce but lack the expertise to grow it myself. I generally leave the farming to the farmers, urban gardeners, and my neighbor who pretends not to notice I’m serving her juleps made with mint nicked from her own side yard. But when the world went weird in March, I thought it could be smart to plant a backyard garden. And by plant, I mean sprinkle seeds like confetti. And by backyard garden, I mean fill the decorative pots that hide the bare spots in our grass.
During the three months that I have wrangled veggies, I’ve learned that tomatoes are prone to root rot and a cluster of romaine will grudgingly produce one salad every few weeks. But basil, ah basil is game to grow anytime, anywhere. I am a veritable basil farmer extraordinaire. And my pesto will be the blue-ribbon recipe at my quarantine county fair.
Pesto, like the fistfuls of basil that comprise it, knows no limits. Need a vegetarian pasta sauce? A flavorful sandwich spread? A summer appetizer that’s not bruschetta? Pesto is the versatile verdant answer. The only reason not to enjoy pesto morning, noon and night is that traditional recipes can be light on protein and heavy on fat. So, in honor of the finest crop in my field, we’re going to keep the best parts of pesto and add a few unexpected ingredients to make it healthier.
A large food processor is the only equipment you’ll need. Throw in the basil, plus a generous amount of sweet peas. Peas are high in protein and fiber, but low in calories and fat. Fresh peas taste like summer; defrosted frozen peas work beautifully as well. If canned peas are in your pantry, give them a quick rinse to wash away any sodium before they join the pesto party.
Instead of adding a generous amount of olive oil, we use a can of drained white beans as the nearly fat-free binder. Like peas, beans offer massive amounts of plant-based protein and fiber. As a bonus, when they are chopped up in the food processor, they look like the pine nuts found in traditional recipes. The beans make this pesto thick and creamy, which is perfect if you’re using pesto as a spread. Feel free to thin your pesto with a splash of water before blanketing some whole-wheat noodles, or stirring it into a green shakshuka.
It’s time to talk about the pine nuts. I had a hard time navigating pine nuts, which are a key ingredient in traditional pesto. On the plus side, they contain a good amount of the protein and fiber we’re embracing. And they add a welcome crunch to a sauce whose texture can fall easily into “slippery.” But their high fat content gives me pause. Here, I thread the needle by adding a little less than a tablespoon per serving. Feel free to use more or skip them entirely as your dietary needs dictate.
You may notice that this recipe omits the traditional Parmesan shreds. While I am normally a huge fan of cheese, the pine nuts and white beans delivered all of the savory umami I craved. If you can’t imagine pesto without cheese, use a sprinkle as a pretty, color-contrasting garnish.
We round out our pesto flavors with garlic, fresh mint, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Use the amounts listed as mere suggestions. Taste and adjust accordingly, then enjoy your pesto in all of its healthful glory.
Creamy Oil-Free Sweet Pea Pesto
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