Pesto Possibilities

 

carrot top pesto

The basil came late to our garden this year. We planted it, same as always, but for some complex convergence of heat and rain, sunlight and nutrients and pollinators, it took awhile to get going.

     It was the same with the carrots. But now that a little rain has arrived, the carrots — and even moreso, their tops — are thriving.

     Our mint, by contrast, grew like clockwork, spreading its rhizome tendrils underground and popping up all over, first in spring, then summer and even now, as August winds to a close, this weedy herb is giving us one last spark of growth.

     Which means now is the perfect time to make pesto.

     If you’re familiar with pesto, you likely think of it as a sauce for pasta, made from basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan. But really pesto is much more.

     Pesto is thought to have originated during the Roman empire, a mixture of garlic, cheese and herbs, ground together in a mortar and pestle, which is how it got it’s name. The part where the herb was primarily basil and nuts were included came later, presumably as food-loving Italians mixed and matched flavors with the ingredients they had at hand. One story goes that every family in Genoa has its own secret pesto recipe.

     I love considering that lore. Because it speaks so meaningfully to today’s move toward seasonal cooking and eating. If you’ve got more parsley than you know what to do with, make a paste with it. Find other ingredients that complement it and dishes (pasta, pizza, grilled, meat, sandwiches) that call for it.

     Look around, pesto’s history seems to say, and see what you can do with what you have.

     That was how I came to discover mint pesto earlier this summer. I had mint, mint everywhere, much more than I needed to sprig in my lemonade and garnish my desserts. When an online search led to me to mint pesto, I thought, “Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?”

mint pesto

     It turned out to be a lovely condiment, bright and herby, with that distinctive fresh taste that pairs so well with meat, lamb especially. I have made it several times and frozen a few batches for the dark days of winter when straight-from-garden herbs are a mere memory.

     But even more than delighting my taste buds, the mint discovery opened my mind. Soon I was searching everywhere for pesto possibilities.

     I found recipes for sorrel spinach pesto. For purslane (it’s a highly nutritious weed) pesto. For pesto made with pistachios and hazelnuts and macadamia nuts, broccoli and cilantro and dandelion greens, Any combination was ripe for the trying.

     So naturally when I got wind of carrot top pesto, there was no question I would have to give it a whirl.

     Carrot top pesto has an added trash-to-treasure allure. Creating with a part of the vegetable usually destined for the compost heap has a special, almost subversive quality about it, don’t you think?

     I found many recipes for carrot top pesto. Some combining the green with basil. Others using cashews as the nut. In the end, I chose a simple combination with almonds and lemons. I liked how the lemons highlighted the light, citrus-y flavor of the carrot tops.

     Click on the links for recipes for my three favorite pestos of the moment: basil, mint and carrot-top. All made in a food processor. (I’m sorry to say that my beautiful gift of a pink marble mortar and pestle has become a vessel for stray rubber bands because I do not have the patience to work so hard when the food processor will do it for me.) None of the recipes include pine nuts. They are too pricey of late. And there are too many questions about the quality of today’s pine nuts, coming mostly from China as they do. I use walnuts and almonds in my pesto. And I plan to keep experimenting — testing a Virginia peanut perhaps?

     What about you? Have you ventured out of the realm of basil pesto? Do you have a favorite non-traditional recipe to share?

     As for me, I’ll be searching the garden, hoping to discover my next uncommon pesto pairing.

     Watch here for my segment on pesto-making on Roanoke’s Daytime Blue Ridge midday show.

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