Pesto: Variations on a Theme
Updated: Apr 9
Ever since I was a kid I found pesto to be the supreme way to enjoy pasta. As an adult, however, I discovered that my body just isn't happy with cheese or nuts. Luckily, chefs have concocted all kinds of variations to make this delightful sauce more creative (how else are you going to use those carrot tops?), healthier (how about walnuts in place of pine nuts?), or compliant with specific diets (such as vegan or paleo). So now I think of pesto as a category, a highly variable template to get creative with.
Here are the basics I work with:
Oil- Olive oil is my go to, but don't feel limited. Avocado oil is great. Since you aren't heating it, nut or seed oils, like walnut or pumpkin are fine, too.
Garlic- Raw or roasted, garlic adds powerful antioxidants, making it great for your immune system.
Greens- Herbs are particularly nutrient dense because they are harvested young. I love experimenting with combinations. After all, what's Chimichurri, but pesto's cousin, made with parsley and cilantro? You can also throw in the tops of carrots, dandelion greens, whatever you've got on hand. This is a great way to hide small amounts of flavors you might not love, but know are good for you.
Anchovies- Just a couple add saltiness and Omega-3s without giving your sauce an overwhelming fishy taste.
Citrus- A squeeze of lemon or lime along with some zest if I'm really feeling fancy can add brightness.
Spices- Salt and pepper, of course. But other herbs and spices are easy ways to take both flavor and health benefits up a notch. Turmeric, red chili or cayenne, onion are great choices. I'll even throw in dashes of more obscure powders, like chlorophyll and spirulina.
Nuts or seeds- For those of you who aren't allergic or sensitive, this is a great way to play with texture and flavor. Cashews and tahini add creaminess. Walnuts, hemp and flax add fiber and valuable Omega fats. Pumpkin and sunflower seeds are also great options.
Olives: Throw in a few to add saltiness and fat.
Avocado: Another way to add some fat and creaminess to any sauce...that is if you haven't already used all of it on your toast.
The beauty here is that there’s no wrong way to do it. Out of one ingredient? Just throw in something else. Blend, taste, adjust, and savor. You can throw it on pasta (or your veggie noodles or cauliflower gnocchi), use it in place of sauce on a pizza, drizzle it on your eggs, meat, salads, and tacos. Other than desserts, I can't think of a bad choice. Enjoy your experiments and feel smug about up-leveling your nutrition. I’d love to hear what variations you come up with!