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Garden variety: Use any kind of green to make a pesto recipe

Ari Levaux, More Content Now
Garden variety: Use any kind of green to make a pesto recipe
Radish Leaf Hazelnut Pesto (Photo: Foodmoods)

In Genoa, Italy, the birthplace of pesto, it goes without saying that the sauce is made with basil. Genoese basil, to be exact.

Pesto is so big in Genoa that the airport had to loosen its rules, allowing travelers to bring more than 3 ounces of liquid in their carry-on baggage, providing that liquid was pesto. They screen it with the machine used for medicine and breast milk.

Wise to the word

The word “pesto” comes from the Italian “pestare,” which means “to crush, grind, pound.” It’s derived from Latin “pisto,” which means “I pound.” In addition to being the root of “pesto,” this etymology also gives us the word “pestle,” which was, along with the mortar, the tool of choice for pesto making back in the day.

Here in the New World, it isn’t a given that pesto even contains basil, and chefs have taken to making a big deal out of it by adding “pesto” as a suffix to the name of the mashed-up leafy green du jour.

I did a “-basil” web search for “pesto” (a search that screens out any hits that mention “basil”), and found recipes for pesto made from parsley, cilantro, spinach, kale, asparagus, garlic scapes, chard, dill, onion tops, fennel greens, mizuna, beet greens, mint, turnip greens, arugula, collard greens, broccoli, watercress, radicchio and even lettuce.

In other words, you can essentially toss the whole darn garden salad into your blender, add olive oil, garlic, cheese and nuts, and presto, you’ve got pesto. You can do the same with many of the weeds you pull from your garden — the dandelion, plantain, purslane and Lamb’s Quarters — as well as the wild plants growing in your neighborhood, like nettles, wild mustard, ramps and miner’s lettuce. And you can do the same thing with many of the items you would have put in the compost pile, like celery leaves, turnip greens, radish leaves and carrot tops. I even found a recipe for carrot peel pesto. Wait, what?

What is pesto?

I can’t get behind a pesto that does not contain chlorophyll. It was a batch of spinach pesto that solidified my thinking. I made it because I had too much spinach on my hands, and pesto has a way of making large piles of leaves become very small. This batch, made with olive oil, Parmesan and cashews, was oddly satisfying, despite the fact that the flavor of spinach is so much subtler than that of basil. But spinach is about as high in chlorophyll as a leaf can get, and the resulting pesto — a dark, deep shade of green — was full of it. Since then, maxing out the chlorophyll density has been my goal when making pesto.

When I recently followed a recipe for romaine lettuce pesto, I found the result completely unsatisfying. So I added some dark leaves of kale and chard and got it back on track. Another time I made a batch of radicchio pesto. It was purple and creamy and bitter, a flavor that I’m just fine with. Delicious, to be sure, but not the flavor of pesto. It lacked the minerally embrace of green plant blood.

Basil is a wonderfully aromatic vessel for chlorophyll, and is probably still my favorite leaf from which to make pesto, but spinach is a close second. After that, I prefer the weeds, like Lamb’s Quarter, or wild plants like nettles, both of which have bold, chlorophyll-dense flavors. Mixing and matching your leaves adds complexity to the pesto, and is highly recommended.

Have some on hand all year

When basil is in season, I focus on that, and make enough to freeze for year-round use. While I typically add nuts, garlic and cheese to my fresh pesto, when I make it for storage I keep it very simple: just olive oil, basil and salt.

I don’t skimp on the olive oil, neither in quality nor quantity. The pesto should be fluid enough to set off an airport liquid detector, after all.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column that’s appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 25 states. Ari can be reached at