The first pesto recipe I ever followed by the book was from Jeff Smith, aka the Frugal Gourmet. My copy of “The Frugal Gourmet Whole Family Cookbook” is not only stained and with many earmarked pages, but the book pretty much cracks open to Page 260, to a prescription that calls for 4 cups tightly packed basil, 1/2 cup olive oil, 2 cloves garlic, 6 sprigs parsley leaves, salt and pepper, 1/4 cup pine nuts, walnuts or almonds and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano. Whirl it through the food processor (or channel your inner cave man by pounding it down with a mortar and pestle) and you’ve got a paste perfect for tossing with pasta, spreading on crackers or scooping with crudites.
Heady with basil, thinned smooth by olive oil then bulked up with Parmesan and nuts, Smith’s is a traditional Genovese green paste. The recipe has been highly serviceable as-is over the years, but I’ve been known to tweak it depending on what the garden is willing to give up. Not enough basil? I’ll make up the difference with pointy, peppery arugula leaves. No parsley? I sneak in cilantro, hoping that my supertaster son with an aversion to it doesn’t notice.
Just like everyone is breaking rules these days with hummus — chickpeas get the heave-ho, replaced with the likes of beets, carrots, white beans or red lentils — you can go free form with pesto. In “The Pesto Cookbook” (Storey Publishing, $16.95), author Olwen Woodier pulls out the food processor to pulse together nearly 50 pesto renditions that hold every color of the rainbow and pretty much anything you can pluck from the garden.
Going beyond basic means rethinking the base. Move over, oil. Woodier puts mayo and even avocado to the pesto test. She grabs from the global pantry, reaching for tomatillos, seeds and jalapenos for Mexican takes, ginger and peanut for Asian accents. Mixing it up also means thinking about applications: salads, soups, grains, breads, steak and seafood. Pesto is so versatile that it’s more a question of what it can’t go with than what it can.
Woodier’s recipe for Ricotta and Garden Greens Pesto is a gardener’s delight, as it uses a handful of immature greens and herbs, plus chives that deliver an onion-garlic flavor punch. Even carrot tops, she says, are contenders, although she cautions against using too much because of their assertive flavor. Ricotta and honey also make an appearance. Soft cheese and sweeteners might be atypical pesto additives, but for this “kitchen sink” concoction, they more than get the job done.
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