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Pesto Goes Rogue



For years I resisted developments in pesto. A purist, I was suspicious of change and, frankly, hostile towards new-fangled assumptions that the perfection of basil pesto should be tampered with. Even the phrase "basil pesto" still makes me cringe a little; it's redundant! Alas, relentless onslaughts from Nigella Lawson and Fine Cooking Magazine have beaten me down. Pesto is no longer just that hallowed combination of basil, pine nuts, Parmesan and olive oil. It means garlic scapes, roasted red peppers and almonds. Practically anything that can be whizzed up into a nubby paste has the pesto moniker slapped gleefully on. Privately, I mourn for the Genovese, but the fact is pesto can be, well, not improved, but tinkered with.

My father was first to point out to me that walnuts are an excellent —and cheaper — substitute for pine nuts, which are the gold bullion of Nut Town. Neither walnuts nor the other nuts I've tried are better than pine nuts, but they're different and often just as good. Pecorino Romano is less than half the price of Parmesan, and in combination with garlic (which I refuse to make any pesto without) the difference in flavor is negligible. The oil, however, is not be skimped on; good quality extra virgin olive oil is paramount.

The basic appeal of pesto is raw garlic ameliorated by the fat of nuts, cheese and oil. Basil, with its sharp anise-like flavor, is the ideal partner, but other flavors can jive along well. People love cilantro pestos, and both parsley and tarragon are awesome. Many herbs become too bitter if used in handfuls, so taste first and see if you need to thin your herbs with spinach. For instance, sage pesto is great on grilled chicken, but I'd use 1 part sage leaves to 1 part parsley and 2 parts spinach.

Need I mention that pesto goes far beyond pasta? As Quiznos has taught the Midwest, pesto is great on a turkey sandwich. Tomatoes can be stuffed with pesto and breadcrumbs, squash can be slathered, soup can be dolloped and chicken and fish can be schmeered. Think of the colds you're defeating with all that raw garlic! Just don't go to a crowded show right after dinner. Trust me.

Jada's Carrot Pesto

Makes about a cup.

Ingredients and method:

1 large carrot, peeled and grated

1 large clove of garlic, peeled and chopped

½ teaspoon salt (I use more, but I like things salty)

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese

¼ cup walnuts

¼ cup almonds

A small handful of chopped fresh tarragon or dill, or ½ teaspoon fresh minced ginger

½ teaspoon lemon juice

½ teaspoon sugar

¼ cup water

Toast the nuts in a toaster oven at 350 F till the aroma wafts but before they brown. Watch 'em carefully. In a food processor, blend the carrot, garlic and salt, pulsing and scraping down the sides. You want a fine mincing, not a mush. Add the nuts and repeat. Add the cheese, lemon juice and sugar, and pulse a few times more. Drizzle in the oil and water between pulsing. Taste and add salt if needed.

Darius' Parsley and Walnut Pesto

Makes about a cup.

Ingredients and method:

½ cup walnuts, toasted (see above)

A large handful of parsley, stems removed, chopped

3-4 small cloves garlic

½ teaspoon salt

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup cheese — Parmesan and/or Asiago cheese, finely grated (not shredded)

If you're lazy like me, you can do this in a food processor, but my pop mashes it with a mortar and pestle, and the texture is better. Pound the garlic and salt into mush. Add in parsley and pound. Ditto the walnuts. Stir in the cheese and oil. Taste for salt.

Calypso's Red Pepper and Macadamia Pesto

Makes about a cup.

Ingredients and method:

1 large roasted red pepper, peeled and chopped

1 large clove of garlic, peeled and chopped

½ teaspoon salt (or more to taste)

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese

1 heaping teaspoon tomato paste

½ cup chopped toasted macadamia nuts

In a food processor, pulse salt, garlic and red pepper. Scrape down the sides, add tomato paste and pulse till combined. Add the nuts and pulse till they're minced. Add the oil and cheese and pulse again. If the mixture is too thick, add ¼ cup water and pulse.

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