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). The herbaceous sauce, which originated in Genoa 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. Pesto 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.
Basil is not the only leaf
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. In fact, it does not refer to the greens at all. In many parts of the Mediterranean, you’ll find parsley pesto with capers or pesto made with garlic scapes (great served with eggs). There’s pesto ‘rosso’ blitzed with sun dried tomatoes and in Germany, Grüne Sosse. This salsa verde-style pesto is made with herbs such as sorrel, chervil, or even borage, with sour cream and vinegar or pickles.
In fact, there’s still debate on just about everything in a pesto. What are the right quantities of garlic, salt and cheese, for example? Should it be smooth or speckled with green? What kind of nuts are best? And when it comes to the main ingredient, this 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. Cover with cloches or bring indoors when the weather turns cold later in the year.
Chervil makes an aromatic pesto too. 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. The other benefit of chervil is it will also thrive in shade.
Other over-looked leaves that can be harvested for your homemade ‘crushes’ include peppery nasturtium, rocket and watercress and broccoli. And what about plump tomatoes? Rather than buy ready-made sun dried tomato pesto, you can dry your home-grown harvest in the oven. Halve them, scoop out the seeds and drizzle in plenty of oil and salt and pepper. 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. Add in some fresh herbs such as rosemary and 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. 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 in autumn and left to grow over winter. You can also make tasty pestos from the young tops of radish and turnips.
Sow in later summer 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. 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. Remove the stem of bigger leaves as they 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 on a sunny patch. Transplanted seedlings tend to droop and scorch in the midday sun. As your seeds grow, pinch out the tips of the shoots regularly to prevent flowering. Hold off on feeding if you want a fuller flavour. Read my handy guide to growing basil here.
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. Clip six-inch lengths of basil and pop in a vase of water, and watch the roots take off. It’s an easy project for children, and, best of all, they can eat the results within a few weeks.
Spoon it into spaghetti, mash it with potato or spread it on a pizza base – however you use yours, here’s my 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. Place them in a food processor with 2oz hard 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). Season with salt and pepper.
Chervil & Pine Nuts
This tangy pesto is perfect blended with goat’s cheese for a dip. Combine 2 handfuls of chervil with the same ratio of cheese, garlic, lemon juice and oil as above. Add in 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 4-5 minutes until just tender. Add to a blender with the same ratio of cheese, garlic, lemon juice and oil in recipe one. Add in 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!
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