Having a child who happens to absolutely love pesto is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a child who will stick a toe in the pool of adventure and happily dig into a sauce that is not only bright green, but also more complex in flavor than the average preschooler’s preferred pasta dish of buttered noodles with cheese. On the other hand, have you ever been driven to eating pesto three times a week because you live with a tiny person who is prone to bouts of tyrant-like behavior when it comes to food? No matter what the food, if you are forced to eat it enough, its gloss will soon begin to fade.
Maybe it’s just the repeat performances wearing me down, but I’ve long felt that pesto, that much-maligned sauce of the ‘90s, is in dire need of a makeover. Being a sauce of few ingredients, there are as many ways to make pesto shine as there are ways to make it dull and unexciting, and, much to the world’s misfortune, most pesto ends up suffering the latter lot rather than the former. It’s too oily. It’s garlicky enough so as to be considered borderline caustic. It’s bland. It’s boring. It’s predictable.
Guess what? It doesn’t have to be any of those things. Breaking apart the simple components of pesto and then dressing them up as you put them back together can yield some fantastic results, and the seemingly endless ways one can Frankenstein together a new type of pesto are limited by only what you may or may not have in your refrigerator on a given day. Starting from a very basic level of pesto-making, just changing up one or two ingredients can provide your standard recipe with a nice bit of change. Arugula can get swapped for basil. A handful of fresh mint can join in. Fresh tomatoes and walnuts can be tossed into the blend.
Though history may have proven that your kid will eschew spinach in its regular form, you can hide a ton of the vitamin and nutrient packed green in your sauce and, so long as you never let loose your secret, no child will ever be able to detect the difference between spinach pesto and regular pesto. You know that as long as your pesto still looks like pesto, chances are your kid will never be the wiser. To appease the adult palette, swapping out roasted almonds for pine nuts not only makes your frequent pesto consumption easier on the wallet, but the hearty taste of the almonds plays nicely off of the subtle nuttiness of the parmesan cheese. Add in lemon zest for brightness, and you’re on your way to something reinvigorated and fantastic.
This is not pesto from a jar, or tired pesto from a restaurant that seemed to run out of menu ideas sometime during the Clinton administration. This is pesto refreshed, yet still utterly recognizable as an old standby who you will always welcome, albeit now with a tad bit more enthusiasm.
This pesto freezes extremely well. I have been known to make several enormous batches of this pesto at the end of our gardening season when I harvest all our greens. After I make a huge batch (or two) of the sauce, I pour it into individual serving sizes and freeze it. Though I have absolutely no recollection where it came from, this silicone baking mold is great for portioning out pesto for freezing:
After the pesto has frozen (at least three hours, or up to overnight), I release the pesto from each cup (this process is super easy when using a silicone mold, by the way, because the silicone cups just peel back and pop the pesto right out), then place the pesto servings in a thick Ziploc freezer bag and toss them back into the freezer.
The pesto will last in the freezer for several months. When you want to use a block of your pesto, just place one in a microwave safe bowl and defrost for about a minute on high heat. Alternately, if you are good about planning ahead, you can just place one of your blocks in the refrigerator to defrost overnight for the next day’s meal. The molds I have are able to hold just a smidge more than 2/3 of a cup of pesto each. 2/3 of a cup of pesto will coat a moderately dressed pound of pasta, or you can cook 3/4 of a pound of pasta and enjoy your pasta a bit more heavily dressed.
Spinach Basil Pesto with Lemon and Almonds
¼ cup slivered or sliced almonds
1 tightly packed cup of fresh basil leaves
2 tightly packed cups of fresh spinach leaves
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
zest of 1 large lemon
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup shredded or grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
In a dry pan, toast almonds over medium high heat until they are golden brown. Remove from heat and set aside.
In the bowl of a food processor or blender, combine basil, spinach, garlic, lemon zest, and olive oil. Process or blend for 15-20 seconds to combine and chop. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add cooled almonds and Parmesan cheese. Process or blend for another 20-30 seconds, scraping down as needed, until pesto is uniformly combined and no large chunks remain. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Pour sauce over your favorite pasta and toss to coat. Taste for seasoning.
If desired, top with chopped tomatoes, more Parmesan cheese, and additional toasted nuts.
Makes 1 cup of pesto, enough for 1 pound of pasta.