When I feel we need some more greenery in our diet I reach for pesto. But not the stuff in a jar. I want a hit of fresh, punchy, healthy greens and I’m afraid you won’t get that from the bought stuff. Pesto takes seconds to make and is one of the most useful flavour and health-boosters you’ll master in the kitchen.
Getting green stuff into children
When my children are proving picky in the greens department, pesto is the thing that they’ll gobble without protest. Believe me, my youngest one is a bugger for eating greens and he eats this concoction once a week – giving me reassurance he won’t come down with scurvy.
I add kale, watercress or rocket [arugula] to the basil in our pesto. It is amazing how much greenery you can pack in to a meal when it has been through the food processor. I stir the pesto through brown rice spaghetti mixed with broccoli (cooked in the same pan as the pasta for the last few minutes of cooking) and raw spiralized courgette [zucchini] so they are getting 3-4 greens in one meal. The basil hides the greenness perfectly for children. Scroll down for the recipe.
My boys have made pesto with me since they were babies. They rip the basil and press the food processor button – to avoid arguments they each get to press it for a count of 5 seconds then switch. Now they are older they also chop up the cheese and pour in the nuts, seeds and oil. In summer we grow our own basil so they pick it from the garden too. Try this with any children you have in the vicinity – they are much more likely to try things they have had a hand in making.
Emptying the fridge and avoiding waste
Pesto is also the thing I make most often when I’m clearing out the fridge at the end of the week and I want to eke out a couple more meals with whatever odds and ends I have.
I don’t just use pesto to clear out the greens in my fridge – I also use it to use ends of cheese. Mixing cheeses is totally fine and a very satisfying way to clean out the cheese shelf. And those annoying bags of seeds and nuts that have just a few bits left in? Chuck them in too – again, a mixture is totally fine. See the suggestions below for what I use and how.
Read this post about why I keep banging on about avoiding food waste.
The basic pesto formula
Pesto Genovese is the classic recipe but free yourself from that and start to think of pesto as just a mixture of a few building blocks:
something green + cheese + something crunchy + oil + seasoning
So for example, one or a mixture of things from each category:
green: basil/parsley/rocket (arugula)/watercress/kale/cooked broccoli/spinach or combination i.e. basil and arugula
crunch: raw skin-on almonds, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, toasted breadcrumbs, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, pistachios, cashews
cheese: Cheddar/Parmesan/Pecorino/blue cheese/Gruyere/hard goat’s or sheep’s cheese
seasoning: black pepper or a pinch of red pepper flakes, sea salt
oil: good olive, avocado or walnut oil
And please don’t feel the need to get the scales out when you make this, it is more about proportions than precision. I give weights here but I never measure mine.
Pesto Ingredients (makes enough for 4 people to have with pasta)
120g (4oz) basil leaves and stalks – the stalks have tons of flavour and you’ve paid for them, so use them! I usually add some baby kale to the mix too (see ideas of other greens to use above)
60g (2oz or ¼ cup) pine nuts, sunflower seeds or raw skin-on almonds (see ideas of other crunchy bits to add above)
85g (3oz or ¾ cup) of roughly chopped Parmesan or Pecorino – which is made from sheep’s milk so works for people who are lactose intolerant (see other cheese ideas above)
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons your best extra virgin olive oil
Optional – zest of a lemon, half a clove of garlic
1. Place all the pesto ingredients in a food processor and blitz until you get a rough paste. Scrape down the sides with a silicone spatula if need be and blitz again to ensure all is incorporated. It will look thicker and less oily than the bought stuff
Now you’ve mastered it, you can use exactly the same method and get creative with your ingredients.
Any leftover pesto can be kept in the fridge for around 5 days. Be sure to keep it in a narrow glass jar and pour a thin layer of the olive oil over the surface to stop air getting to it. Once air gets to it, it oxidizes and turns brown. Or you can freeze the pesto in ice cube trays. When it’s frozen, just pop the cubes out of the tray and put them into a freezer bag. When you need them, just take one or two of the cubes out. I often drop a frozen cube into a pasta sauce, soup or stew just before serving.
Other ways to use your pesto
I use pesto in lots of my recipes. It is also amazing on sandwiches, on soup, on crostini, stirred through risotto or mixed with ricotta as a topping for roast chicken or grilled fish. I also use it to stir through steamed green veggies before serving. You can thin the pesto out with more oil and a splash of red wine vinegar to use it as a salad dressing with tomatoes and mozzarella in summer.
Pasta with pesto and greens (serves 4)
Active prep time: 5 minutes. Cooking time: 10 minutes
1 quantity pesto (see above)
300g-460g (12oz-16oz) dried wheat or brown rice pasta – choose any shape that ‘holds’ the sauce, so pens, tubes or shells are good. Or do half spaghetti and half spiralized courgette [zucchini]
A couple of handfuls of green veggies of your choice – green beans, broccoli, cauliflower or in-season asparagus work well. Frozen peas make this child-friendly too
Freshly grated Parmesan, sea salt and black pepper to serve
- Boil a large pan of water with a tablespoon of sea salt grains (not your Maldon). The water should be as salty as the Mediterranean sea so that the pasta absorbs some flavour as it cooks and your sauce has a little less work to do to make everything delicious. Don’t worry you’ll throw most of the salt away with the water. Putting a lid on the pan will speed up the boiling time
- Choose what veggies you want to add and cut them into bite size pieces. Set aside
4. At this point, use your spiralizer (available through my shop) to turn your courgette into noodles if you are using them
5. A minute before the pasta is ready, turn the heat off the pasta and throw your veggies into the pan with the pasta. Leave for a couple of minutes with the lid on
6. Taste the pasta and veggies for doneness then scoop out a cup of the cooking water using a jug or coffee mug. Set this water aside before draining the veggies and pasta together in a colander
7. Return the pasta and veg to the pan and stir through the pesto through them. I like to use long metal tongs to toss the sauce through the pasta. Add a little of the cooking water to help make a silky sauce – don’t skip this bit! The starch in the pasta water helps the sauce cling to the pasta and also thins the pesto. I usually use about a cup of this starchy water, added gradually to make a perfectly silky sauce. Taste it and add salt and pepper to get it just right
8. Serve the pasta with a grating of fresh Parmesan. Leftovers are delicious served at room temperature or reheated until warm. The pasta will need a little more moisture added after it is stored.
You can now buy the equipment I use in this recipe through my shop. I’ve spent years testing my favourite bits of equipment so rest-assured that whatever I recommend is the best tool for the job and will give you great results without cluttering your kitchen with unused tools. You can also buy my other bits of essential kitchen equipment through this post.
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