Tossed with pasta, slathered on sandwiches, or simply for dipping crudites, there is no wrong way to enjoy the nutty, cheesy, herby deliciousness that is pesto. While the classic Genoese recipe calls for basil, pine nuts, Parmesan, garlic, and olive oil, there are zillions of ways to get your pesto on. Swap in different greens, use another nut, change the cheese (or try nutritional yeast for a vegan version)–there are myriad ways to change up the flavor and nutrition. Here are some experts’ favorite twists.
The Nettle Neck sandwich at New York City eatery Untamed Sandwiches features this pesto (pictured above), along with red wine-braised lamb neck, gruyere cheese, pickled spring onions, and charred onion tops. But it’s delicious on any sandwich. “The texture of our pesto is a little bit chunkier and leafier than a typical Genovese basil pesto, and the flavor is a little bit heartier and richer, less delicate than basil pesto,” says co-founder Andrew Jacobi.
Recipe: Toast 4 ounces walnuts in a 325ºF oven for 10 minutes, shaking pan occasionally. With gloved hands, pick the leaves off 1 pound stinging nettles. Wash the leaves, then blanch them for 1 minute in boiling water before moving to an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Squeeze as much water from leaves as possible, then chop them. Add about 1/4 of the walnuts and nettles to a food processor. When well mixed, add 2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and blend again. Continue adding walnuts, nettles, and oil in this manner until all the walnuts and nettles have been added and desired consistency is reached. Rough chop 5 garlic cloves and mix into pesto with a spoon. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Swap out basil for mint, add some heat and use almond butter as your emulsifier in this refreshing pesto. “It’s delicious when served with Indian bread and can also be stirred into all manner of soups just before serving,” says James Peterson, author of Sauces.
Recipe: In a food processor, combine 1 tightly packed cup mint leaves, 2 tablespoons finely chopped jalapeños (seeded if desired), 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion, 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger, 4 teaspoons lemon juice, and 3 tablespoons almond butter; purée until smooth, about 20 seconds. Taste and season with salt. Serve immediately. (This was excerpted from James Peterson’s Sauces.)
Kale, spinach, and spirulina turn pesto into a superfood fest. Feel free to swap in chlorella, blue-green algae, or unsweetened dry “green juice” mix if you don’t have spirulina. “This has a very similar consistency to a classic pesto Genoese, but a darker color and more robust, hearty flavor. It is excellent on spiralized zucchini or steamed white fish fillets,” says the recipe’s creator, Susan Volland, author of Mastering Sauces.
Recipe: With a food processor running, drop in 3 garlic cloves. Add 3 tablespoons walnut pieces and 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed; pulse until evenly chopped. Add 2 cups lightly packed baby spinach leaves, 2 cups torn, lightly packed kale leaves, 1 tablespoon powdered spirulina (optional), and 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest. Pulse until mixture is finely and evenly chopped. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 2 teaspoons honey (optional), 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper. Turn the food processor on and gradually drizzle in 1/2 cup grapeseed or extra virgin olive oil in a thin stream. Serve raw or lightly warmed.
If you have a mortar and pestle, Peterson recommends using it for this recipe. “A mortar and pestle are best used for small amounts that the food processor can’t reach, and then the olive oil is stirred in at the end by hand so it doesn’t turn bitter,” he explains. A mini food processor also would work. Enjoy this pesto on grilled foods or as a thickener for soups and sauces.
Recipe: Place 4 garlic cloves, 4 ounces peeled and toasted hazelnuts or almonds, 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, and 3 slices lightly toasted white bread (crusts removed) into a food processor. Purée for 4 to 5 minutes, until smooth. (If using a mortar and pestle, grind the garlic with about 1/4 of remaining ingredients at a time.) Add 1/2 cup water, 2 tablespoons at a time, and continue mixing until mixture is stiff but no longer oily. Scrape down the sides of the food processor (or mortar) from time to time for an even texture. Transfer to a mixing bowl and slowly work in 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil with a wooden spoon. Keep covered and refrigerated until needed. This is best used the same day. (Excerpted from James Peterson’s Sauces.)
These wild spring onions look like scallions with broader leaves. “Ramps give this pesto a bold garlic-meets-onion flavor,” says Cara Mangini, author of The Vegetable Butcher. Try it on pasta, grilled or roasted vegetables, or in place of tomato sauce on pizza. Tip: Remove the thick ribs from the ramps, as they can be tough and pungent in flavor.
Recipe: Combine 1 bunch coarsely chopped ramps (about 10 ramps or 1/2 pound), 1/2 cup toasted walnuts or pecans, 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, or Asiago cheese, 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, and 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or walnut oil in a food processor or blender. Purée to make a thick paste. Continue blending, adding more oil as needed, until you reach desired consistency. Adjust the salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste. The pesto will keep, in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to 5 days, or in the freezer for up to 3 months. (Excerpted from The Vegetable Butcher, Workman Publishing, copyright 2016.)
Lettuce in pesto? It works. “This recipe is a pesto in that it is a paste consistency, but the similarity to the classic ends there,” Volland says. “It is a slightly lighter and wetter consistency, with a good wasabi bite. It is nice dolloped on cold tofu or noodles.”
Recipe: Puree 1/2 cup blanched fresh (or thawed frozen) green peas and 1/2 cup sliced scallions in a food processor or blender. Add 2 cups chopped Romaine lettuce and pulse to chop evenly. Add 1 tablespoon prepared wasabi. Blend while gradually adding 3 tablespoons raw sesame oil or light olive oil, until the sauce becomes smooth. Season to taste with salt. Best enjoyed immediately. (Excerpted from Mastering Sauces.)
While many pesto recipes are seasonal, this is a year-round recipe, Volland says. “It is smooth and almost creamy in texture, and the porcini add an earthy flavor. It goes particularly well with salmon, but also makes a great canape base,” she adds.
Recipe: Place 1/2 cup salted, roasted pistachios, 2 garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, and 1 tablespoon porcini mushroom powder (dried porcini finely ground in a spice mill or coffee grinder) in the bowl of a food processor. Process into a coarse paste. Scrape the sides of the bowl and add 4 cups loosely packed baby spinach. Pulse until the leaves and nuts are evenly mixed. Gradually add 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil in a stream until the mixture forms a paste. Season with additional salt and pistachio oil (optional) to taste. Best enjoyed immediately. (Excerpted from Mastering Sauces.)
Cardoons look a bit like a head of celery. They add a subtle artichoke-like flavor and meatier texture to this bright-tasting pesto, Mangini explains. “Spread this on crostini with a smear of ricotta or whipped feta,” she suggests.
Recipe: Trim and peel 1 pound cardoons and cut the stalks into 1-inch by 2-inch pieces. Place in a large pot of lightly salted water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until very tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Drain well and pat dry. In a food processor, finely chop 1 small garlic clove, then add 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts; process until chopped. Add the cardoons, 1/4 cup tightly packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest, 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, and 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Blend, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl, until it becomes a coarse purée.
Add 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil and 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan; blend again until incorporated and creamy (it will not be completely smooth). Blend in up to 2 more tablespoons olive oil to reach desired consistency. Add up to 1 more teaspoon lemon juice and more salt and pepper to taste. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container with a piece of plastic pressed directly over the top for up to 5 days. (Excerpted from The Vegetable Butcher, Workman Publishing, copyright 2016.)
“This recipe is a takeoff on the many such recipes found in Europe, usually in areas surrounding the Mediterranean,” Peterson says. “The principle is to start by grinding garlic to a paste and then adding fillers such as breadcrumbs, potatoes, or beans.” He recommends using it to make crostini or as a dip. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can make this in a food processor. Simply purée the solids and work the olive oil in by hand with a wooden spoon.
Recipe: Blanch 1 1/2 cups shelled pistachios (or other nuts, such as pine nuts) in boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain in a strainer and immediately rinse with cold water. Place in a clean cloth towel and rub together vigorously to detach the thin brown membranes. Toast the pistachios in a 325ºF oven until fragrant, about 10 minutes, shaking pan occasionally. Blanch 1 pound fresh shelled and peeled fava beans for 1 minute. Drain in a strainer and immediately rinse with cold water.
Grind 1 clove garlic and 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Add pistachios and grind until a rough paste forms. Add fava beans and grind to a paste. Add 1/2 cup cooked or canned Great Northern beans (or other white beans) and grind to a paste. Work in 1/4 cup chopped parsley and 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more as needed to reach desired consistency. Season to taste with salt. Keep refrigerated for up to one week. (Excerpted from James Peterson’s Sauces.)
Brittany Risher is a writer, editor, and digital strategist specializing in health and lifestyle content. She loves experimenting with new vegan recipes and believes hummus is a food group. To stay sane from working too hard, she turns to yoga, strength training, meditation, and Scotch.
Also published on Medium.