Think outside the basil box when it comes to pesto and grow and make your own from other garden greens…
You can’t go wrong with a pestle and mortar of basil, pine nuts and a good hard cheese when it comes to pasta (or mash, or pizza for that matter). Pesto, the herbaceous sauce, which originated in Genoa, northern Italy, in the 16th century, has become something of cultural and culinary icon. Aromatic, nutty and zesty in one mouthful, this meatless and economical amalgam can be made in minutes, requires little know-how and virtually no cooking time. But if you want to grow your own ‘pesto alla Genovese’, you might be harder pressed.
Basil can be wickedly stubborn to flourish in our cooler climate (unless you have the luxury of a greenhouse or poly tunnel) and while you might succeed with a handful, the luxurious bunches needed for a good pesto can be out of the reach of most gardeners – especially towards the end of the gardening year.
But why get in a basil rut? The word pesto is actually a generic term – coming from the word pestâ or pestare, which means ‘to pound’ or crush’, i.e. in a pestle and mortar – and does not refer to the greens at all. Thus, in many parts of the Mediterranean, you’ll find parsley pesto with capers; pesto made with garlic scapes (great served with eggs); pesto ‘rosso’ made with sun dried tomatoes; and in Germany, Grüne Sosse – a kind of salsa verde made with herbs such as sorrel, chervil, or even borage, with sour cream and vinegar.
Indeed, while there’s still much debate on just what are the right quantities of garlic, salt and cheese needed for pesto – and whether it should be smooth or speckled with green; or what kind of nuts to use – the main ingredient can also be freely tweaked depending on what’s to hand in the vegetable patch.
Crush on you
Even a small pot or window box can provide bundles of pesto ingredients. Try sowing sorrel, coriander, parsley and spinach now, thinly on well-watered compost and cover with a little soil. Sow little and often for supplies of young leaves over several weeks, and cover with cloches or bring indoors if the weather turns cold.
Chervil makes an aromatic pesto too and its mild aniseed leaves retain their flavour well in this raw form rather than being cooked. It’s fabulous dolloped on top of egg and potato salads or mixed with soft cheese to make a dip for crudités and bread sticks. The other benefit of chervil is, unlike many other herbs, it will also thrive in shade – as it tends to go to seed in the sun.
Other interesting leaves that can be harvested for your homemade ‘crushes’ (and often over-looked) include nasturtium, rocket and watercress – all nice and peppery – as well as broccoli.
And what about your plump tomatoes? Rather than buy ready-made sun dried tomato pesto, you can dry your home-grown harvest in the oven. Simply halve them, scoop out the seeds and drizzle in plenty of oil and salt and pepper, and bake in the oven on its lowest setting for up to three hours. Once dried, blitz 10 or so halves with pitted black olives, garlic cloves, almonds, and some fresh herbs such as rosemary, along with a dash of balsamic vinegar and oil – and you’ll beat a bottle of Sacla’s finest hands down.
And who said pesto was just for summer? Chervil and parsley will survive into autumn and winter with a little protection, and if you have a bigger veg patch, you can plant some greens to keep you ‘in pesto’ throughout the cold spell.
Kale and Swiss chard can be sown for baby leaves now and left to grow over winter, and you can also make tasty pestos from the young tops of radish and turnips.
Pop a late sowing in now, by making a shallow drill in the soil using a trowel handle, and popping the seed on the surface. Cover lightly with soil, and keep the area moist if the weather turns dry, and use the roots for their tops rather than their bottoms, blitzing the nutty greens with plenty of toasted almonds or walnuts to offset the bitterness. Bigger leaves can be used too but you’ll need to remove the stem, as this can be tough and chewy.
And, if no pesto is quite the same for you without basil, the best advice is to grow it from seed in a sunny patch rather than from transplanted seedlings – which tend to droop, scorch and eventually die in the midday sun. As your seeds grow, pinch out the tips of the shoots regularly to prevent flowering i.e. going to seed and hold off on feeding if you want a fuller flavour.
While a sappy supermarket pot of basil will never thrive outdoors, they are very handy for growing free basil plants on the windowsill. Many herbs, such as mint, lemon balm and oregano can be rooted in water i.e. they produce roots when the bottom of the stem is submerged, so trying clipping six-inch lengths of basil and watch the roots and shoots take off. It’s an easy project for children, and, best of all, they can eat the results within a few weeks – with lashings of cheese and pasta of course!
Spoon it into spaghetti, mash it with potato or spread it on a pizza base – however you use yours, here’s our five favourite pepped-up pestos…
Radish Leaf & Almond
Not just good for roots, radishes can be used for their young leaves too. Grab two good handfuls and remove the stems, placing them in a food processor with 2oz hard vegetarian cheese, 2oz almonds, 1 clove garlic and the juice and zest of half a lemon. Add 2tbsp oil, or more depending on the consistency you like, and season with salt and pepper.
Chervil & Pine Nuts
This tangy pesto is perfect mixed with goat’s cheese for a dip. Combine 2 handfuls of chervil with the same ratio of veggie cheese, garlic, lemon juice and oil above, and add 2oz of pine nuts.
Coriander & Pumpkin Seed
Fabulous with roasted squash fresh off the barbecue, this Mexican-style pesto combines 2 good handfuls of coriander leaves with 1oz toasted pumpkin seeds, 2tbsp lime juice, 2oz veggie hard cheese, 1 clove garlic and olive oil. Season to taste with lots of freshly ground black pepper and sea salt.
Broccoli & Walnut
Stir this mean-green pesto through beans, rice or pasta. Boil one head of broccoli florets for 5 minutes and add to a blender with the same ratio of veggie cheese, garlic, lemon juice and oil in recipe one, adding 2oz walnuts at the end. Season with salt and pepper to taste and blitz to a smooth or chunky paste, depending on how you like it!
Originally published in Vegetarian Living, 2016