Know Thy Pesto

Tasting summer by way of crushed, fresh basil

Jalapeno-Cilantro Pepita Pesto

1 cup cilantro sprigs, packed 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, packed 1 medium Vidalia onion peeled and coarsely chopped 2 jalapeno chilies, stems removed and coarsely chopped 3/4 cup pepitas, raw green pumpkin seeds (available in the Mexican food aisle at most groceries) 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil 2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved

I know me, and I know Savelli’s pesto. That’s why I never order it.

If I did, I know I’d never touch the linguine or tortellini below. I’d just inhale spoon after spoon of the sensuous green and garlicky pesto, warmed but not hot, pooling just a little chef-grade olive oil at the bottom of the plate. And when the pesto was all gone, the pasta naked, I’d only want more.

No, at Savelli’s I have to be content with a bite or two of my daughter’s pesto on a scrap of garlic toast, or I will overdo. This is the real thing, an old-fashioned Italian, Mediterranean version with loads of fresh basil, toasted pine nuts, and parmesan cheese. Of course it’s most likely whirled in a food processor, not pounded with marble mortar and pestle (hence the name), but it tastes like sunny day lunch in the olive grove.

I love traditional pesto, and I know that friendly bandana-ed workers are all too happy to sell you takeout containers of the Tomato Head version at the restaurant and Three Rivers Market. That’s why I never make it at home.

Oh, I’ve tried, most infamously with lemon-basil from the downtown Farmer’s Market—tasted like oily lemon rind with a hint of juniper. Still, even now that I know to use tender, locally grown Genovese basil, I’m not willing to assemble and underwrite ingredients like super-duper virgin olive oil, imported Parmesan, and pine nuts, which really are harvested from inside pine cones, and are priced accordingly. When the Tomato Head’s super-fresh, ready-to-serve pesto costs about the same as a bottle of Pompeii can-you-believe-we-ever-thought-this-was olive oil, why would I bother to make it myself?

But there’s one other thing I know about pesto. The name’s not just for the stuff that originated in Genoa (not to be confused with the mythical kingdom from The Princess Diaries) or Liguria or wherever. Not anymore. On food shows and in trendy restaurants and new-wave Italian or “nature’s vegetable bounty” cookbooks, pesto is just a label for an uncooked, oil-based leafy sauce. This new breed of pesto involves ingredients you can afford to experiment with: huge handfuls of parsley or cilantro, or even baby spinach, all manner of peppers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, nuts and nut substitutes, and various members of the onion family.

These New Age pestos are showing up on small plates with goat cheese, mixed into hummus and dipped up with pita, ladled over gnocchi, tossed with chopped kalamata olives and chunked boiled new potatoes. Jeanne Kelly, owner of a backyard organic garden minutes from downtown Los Angeles, and author of this spring’s Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes (Running Press) recommends pesto spread on toast topped with a fried egg, sliced tomato and parmesan cheese.

I didn’t try that, but I did fuse two of her peppery pesto recipes into this jalapeno-pumpkin seed pesto. It’s great on pasta, certainly, but even better warmed on top of scrambled eggs or inside a cheese quesadilla or chicken wrap.

It’s pretty good, but I’m not tempted to eat it with a spoon. I know, I know. That’s a good thing.

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor, process until finely chopped. Add 1/3 cup of water and blend until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste. m

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Comments » 5

Prof_John writes:

I'm intrigued when a food writer extols the virtues of pesto, specifically fresh basil, an herb that I find bitter and vile tasting. I complained at length when I found it as an ingredient on half the sandwiches at the late unlamented Tennessee Grill, unlisted on the menu.

On the other hand, I'm perfectly aware that cilantro, a plant I find delightful in taste (I've been known to eat cilanto chutney straight), is to many only akin to soap as a taste. This aversion includes my daughter and stepson.

There's no disputing taste... but people need to be aware that there's many common foods whose taste is disputed.

rkennedy writes:

My brother in law, a Culinary Institute-trained chef who works in Tampa, was the first to inform us in the "cilantro boom" of the early 90s that cilantro was a fine addition to any salsa . . . if you wanted it to taste like soap!

tgray writes:

I love soap flavor!

pmtravis writes:

Pesto with heat? Genius! I've been adding red pepper flakes to all my pasta
dishes, so I can't wait to try this (especially since I have a bag of pepitas in my

And I've never thought cilantro tastes like soap. However, I do think raw ginger tastes like Pledge.

rkennedy writes:

Oh, no, Paige. You're crushing my illusions of you as a non-furniture polish
consumer. But I'm totally in agreement on the raw ginger. Wonder why someone
first thought to mash it and saute it in stir fry instead of, say, sassafras or cork.

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