Unseating basil as pesto’s main ingredient?

| 02 May 2014 | 01:29

A few years ago I attended a pesto making workshop and discovered new ways to prepare this traditional Italian sauce. The class was held at a farm, so in addition to just-picked basil and heads of hardneck garlic, we could choose sprigs of cilantro, flat leaf parsley and wild arugula. We chopped, grated, pulsed, tasted and adjusted until containers of green filled the kitchen. Since this experience, I’ve put my food processor to work in my own kitchen, combining a variety of herbs and greens like mint, kale, radish and carrot tops with walnuts, pistachios, lemon zest and really good olive oil to create unique, earthy flavors. If you don’t have a food processor, a mortar and pestle or a very sharp knife will do the job. And a little storage trick I learned is to fill ice cube trays with the pesto, cover with plastic wrap, freeze, then pop out and place in containers for later use.

One of my favorite beyond basil pestos is arugula and green garlic with hulled hemp seeds. These seeds have a mild nutty flavor and creamy texture, are high in protein and provide a balance of heart-healthy essential fatty acids. Spread the peppery mixture on pizza dough or crostini, add a dollop to soups or drizzle over vegetables. I wanted to create a light but filling vegan dish, so I grilled squares of firm polenta, arranged them on top of the pesto, constructing a tower of meaty portabella mushrooms, caramelized Pine Island onions and a fresh arugula salad.

Good cooking is a balance of innovation and tradition. When my basil plants flourish in late August, you bet I’ll be making pesto.


Grilled veggie tower with arugula pesto

Serves 2

For the pesto

3 cups loosely packed arugula

1 to 2 bulbs of green garlic, trimmed and root ends removed or 1 clove garlic

3 tablespoons hulled hemp seeds

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

¼ teaspoon sea salt

1/3 to ½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Place arugula, garlic, hemp seeds, lemon juice, zest and salt in a food processor. Pulse a few times, then with motor running drizzle in olive oil until desired consistency is achieved.

For the onions

1 tablespoon grape seed or high heat canola oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced

salt & pepper

¾ teaspoon sherry vinegar

Heat a skillet on medium. Add oil, when hot add onions and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low heat, stirring every few minutes until onions are brown and caramelized, about 30 minutes. Add vinegar, stir and remove from heat.

For the mushroom

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, finely minced

2 portabella mushrooms, stems and gills removed

Salt and pepper

Mix together vinegar, oil, garlic and pour into a shallow dish. Add the mushroom caps and marinate for 30 minutes, flipping over to make sure all surfaces are covered. Heat a grill pan or outdoor grill, season mushrooms with salt and pepper, place gill side down and grill until tender, about 5 minutes per side. Slice just before serving.

Grilled polenta

Prepare polenta according to package instructions. I like to stir in chopped fresh herbs. Spoon polenta into a baking dish and refrigerate until firm. When ready to assemble the dish, cut squares, brush with olive oil and grill.

To plate, place a spoonful of pesto on each dish, top with grilled polenta, mushrooms, onions and garnish with an arugula salad.