Making pesto in winter when Mother Nature just dumped a fluffy foot of snow on your house is certainly not endorsed by strict localvores. It’s a task normally reserved for the hazy days of summer, when gardens are busting with basil, not sleeping quietly under a heavy blanket of white.
But I’m a fish taco freak and for me, fish tacos need fresh cilantro. In the winter this means I buy my fresh herbs from Mexico, Guatemala, or where ever else they’re shipped from. Oops.
Wilted cilantro ready for the food processor.
I usually buy a bunch and everything is fine and dandy. I have some delicious tacos, then I toss the rest of the cilantro in the fridge and forget about it. Until a week later, when I’m rummaging in the vegetable drawer, trying to scare up some grub and there it is. A bunch of verdant herbs, now wilted and limp. It makes me feel guilty.
Enter, poor man’s pesto.
Whatever wilted and forgotten herbs you have on hand (I’ve tried cilantro, parsley and basil all with success), whizzed in the food processor with nuts, a bit of olive oil and citrus, salt and pepper and you’ve got a vibrant, zippy condiment that is great on anything: fish, chicken, tofu, meat, bread, crackers. It freezes well too.
Pesto most frequently presents itself in the pesto alla genovese form, with basil and pine nuts as the base. But “pesto” is really just a term derived from the Italian word for “to crush,” as in to crush herbs and garlic (think mortar and pestle). I stopped using pine nuts in my pesto because they are so expensive and I prefer the flavor of walnuts. Use whatever you like. The best part about pesto is you can use whatever you have on hand. I’ve made pesto with pine nuts, walnuts, sunflower sweets, peanuts, almonds and pecans. Also, herbs that may be too wilted to chop and sprinkle are great for pesto, I’ve never noticed a lack of brightness, even from leaves that look destined for the compost pile. Just watch for the rotten bits. Pick those out.
- cilantro, walnut, lime pesto atop a firm white fish like halibut or sea bass
- lemon, parmesan, parsley pesto tossed with whole wheat pasta
- sage, walnut, garlic pesto served with roasted pork
This recipe is in the style of Michael Ruhlman author of, “Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.” In Ruhlman’s cookbook he focuses on the ratios required in different recipes, rather than give exact measurements of every single ingredient.
The ratio (roughly) =
2 parts fresh herbs : 1 part nuts
Sometimes you have two wilting bunches of herbs, sometimes a scant one. Maybe you have a lime to use up, maybe it’s a lemon. They key to success lies in tasting as you go. When you can’t stop dipping your hand straight into the bowl, licking the pesto surreptitiously from your fingers, you’re done.
Note: You need a food processor. Or giant muscles and a mortar and pestle, but that’s a lot of work.
Poor man’s wilted herb pesto
2 cups fresh herbs, stems on, roughly chopped (cilantro, basil, parsley or some combination have all worked well for me)
1 cup nuts (I’ve had success with walnuts, pecans, peanuts, sunflower seeds and pine nuts)
1/4 cup oil (olive, or another but stay away from very strong flavors like sesame). NOTE: This is a fairly dry pesto, with less oil than some. Add more if you prefer.
2 cloves garlic (more or less, depending on preference)
lemon or lime juice to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1. Skin the garlic and mince it in a food processor.
2. Chop off the end of the herb’s stems, roughly chop the rest. Add into the food processor along with the nuts, no need to chop them. Whiz the herbs and nuts together, drizzling in the olive oil until you get the consistency you’re looking for. I like mine smooth, but with visible specks of herbs.
3. Add the lemon or lime juice and salt and pepper. Whiz everything together, taste, adjust for seasoning. Freeze in small glass jars with an inch of head room or refrigerate for 3-4 days.
Yields roughly a cup and a half.