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Herb Your Enthusiasm

5 pesto recipes that go beyond basil
Herbs
Photo: Dave Katz/Tasting Table

Fresh herbs, vibrant color, can’t lose.

Add “insanely aromatic,” and you have Thomas Lim’s three-pronged thesis on what makes excellent pesto. The executive chef of ever-popular Ruby’s in New York says that’s all you need to ward off “dull and lifeless” sauce. Here are some tips for pesto that will make your other sauces green with envy.

Get the formula down. Pesto has five components: herb, acid (typically lemon juice), cheese, toasted nuts and oil to blend everything together. Once you know the method, you can make endless combinations: “Don’t be afraid to play around,” Michael Petres, of Porano Pasta in St. Louis, who’s made pesto at home with everything from fennel tops to arugula, urges.

Think outside the pasta box. Pesto can be used to garnish meat, like in classic chicken Genovese. But it can also be used pre-cooking: For a recent Beetlebung Farm dinner, Quality Meats executive chef Antonio Mora used a parsley-tarragon-mint pesto to marinate “lambchetta” for 24 hours. We also suggest spreading it onto sandwiches or using it to dress salad, green goddess-style.

Keep it. Even James Beard Award-winning chefs make too much pesto sometimes. Madison, Wisconsin, chef Tory Miller keeps extra by freezing small amounts in individual Ziploc bags and ice cube trays. Small canning jars will do the trick as well.

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Go really green. Don’t be afraid to throw in some stems from your herbs or use leafy greens that typically get thrown away. Think radish and beet greens, or carrot tops as Bruce Kalman does. Or just step away from the basil and try another herb.

There’s a time and a place for classic basil pesto, but it’s time to show these five herbs some love, too.

—Make It with Parsley—

Let this version be your answer to an overabundant CSA share. Use Grana Padano for a classic Italian taste, which is just as good tossed in pasta as it is spread on sourdough with grilled mushrooms, like at Ceia Kitchen + Bar in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

1 c parsley + ¼ c Grana Padano + ¼ c toasted pistachios + 2 tbsp lemon juice + ¼ c extra-virgin olive oil + salt, to taste

In a food processor or blender, add the parsley, Grana Padano, pistachios and lemon juice. Pulse until the mixture is roughly chopped, then with the motor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until the mixture becomes smooth. Season with salt and serve.

—Make It with Cilantro—

It’s almost like salsa verde, but queso fresco makes this creamier than other Mexican sauces. Do as they do at Porano and use toasted pumpkin seeds instead of pine nuts and lime juice instead of lemon—to match the garnish on your marg, of course.

1 c cilantro + ¼ c queso fresco + ¼ c toasted pumpkin seeds + 2 tbsp lime juice + ¼ c extra-virgin olive oil + salt, to taste

In a food processor or blender, add the cilantro, queso fresco, pumpkin seeds and lime juice. Pulse until the mixture is roughly chopped, then with the motor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until the mixture becomes smooth. Season with salt and serve.

—Make It with Mint—

Give your pasta a Mediterranean kick with this refreshing spin. Try it with orzo or drizzled on lamp chops.

1 c mint + ¼ c feta + ¼ c toasted almonds + 2 tbsp lemon juice + ¼ c extra-virgin olive oil + salt, to taste

In a food processor or blender, add the mint, feta, almonds and lemon juice. Pulse until the mixture is roughly chopped, then with the motor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until the mixture becomes smooth. Season with salt and serve.

—Make It with Sage—

The popular mushroom and fig flatbread at TRADE in Boston gets drizzled with sage pesto. Use a blend of a milder herb like parsley to balance the sage, as it’s extremely woodsy on its own.

¼ c sage + ¾ c parsley + ¼ c Parmigiano-Reggiano + ¼ c toasted walnuts + 2 tbsp lemon juice + ¼ c extra-virgin olive oil + salt, to taste

In a food processor or blender, add the sage, parsley, cheese, walnuts and lemon juice. Pulse until the mixture is roughly chopped, then with the motor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until the mixture becomes smooth. Season with salt and serve.

—Make It with Tarragon—

The French flavors here make it a good choice for tossing into refreshing cold pasta salad or dressing up roast chicken.

1 c tarragon + ¼ c Gruyère + ¼ c toasted hazelnuts + 2 tbsp lemon juice + ¼ c extra-virgin olive oil + salt, to taste

In a food processor or blender, add the tarragon, Gruyère, hazelnuts and lemon juice. Pulse until the mixture is roughly chopped, then with the motor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until the mixture becomes smooth. Season with salt and serve.

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