If you have never eaten homemade pesto, you may not be a fan. Most of us are familiar with the generic, food supplier provided pesto sauces served in restaurants or in pre-made meals at the store. They all taste the same.
Homemade pesto is unique, flavorful and varies from batch to batch. Pesto changes from region to region in Italy and Italian expats often switch out traditional ingredients for local products to ensure their pesto is fresh. I have been making pestos since my college days at UCSC, when I discovered the wonderful Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market and was able to purchase flower bouquet size bunches of basil in over 6 varieties for under $3.oo per bunch.
You don’t need to use pine nuts, basil or Pecorino cheese to make a delicious pesto. My pesto changes with the seasons and sometimes crosses continents. Last week, Neri wanted pasta, but I really didn’t feel like cooking Italian. This pesto was a perfect compromise between both our desires for dinner that evening.
A recent trip to Laguna Hills Farmers Market provided me with more shiso (perilla) leaves than I needed for my Japanese dishes that week. I also had fresh cilantro and mint leaves and 1/2 of an avocado from lunch in the refrigerator. Early that day I was craving those “Thai” style toasted cashews, coated with lemon grass, chilies, sugar, salt and other spices–which is the inspiration for this pesto recipe. You can vary the amounts of herbs and flavorings to suit your taste. The ingredients marked optional can be omitted if you do not have them available and will allow you to use the leftover pesto in a greater number of dishes.
- 1 cup red and green shiso leaves (or all of one type) * If you don’t have shiso leaves use Thai or lemon basil*
- 3/4 c cilantro (including stems)
- 1/2 c mint leaves
- 1 c toasted cashews (toast your own raw, unsalted cashews for the best flavor)
- 1 large clove of garlic
- 1/2 tsp to 1 T crushed dried chilies or single origin chili powder (do not use the chili powder with other spices)
- 2 to 3 green onions
- 1/4 c to 1/2 c olive oil, coconut oil (melted) or nut oil
- 1 tsp brown or date sugar
- 1/2 in piece of lemon grass (inner bottom portion of the stalk) optional
- 1/4 c grated coconut (packaged unsweetened) optional
- juice of 1 lime
- salt to taste
Using a food processor, pulse the cashews, garlic, dried chilies, coconut and lemon grass until finely chopped. Add herbs and green onions, pulsing until coarsely chopped. Add lime juice and slowly drizzle in oil with food processor running. Stop and scrape down the sides with a spatula as needed. Once mixture is smooth, add salt, pulse to mix and taste. The pesto should have a fresh green flavor with the sweet and salty bite of Thai food. Adjust ingredients as needed.
We used this pesto on pasta, tofu and stir-fried vegetables. It would also be a wonderful addition to steamed baby potatoes or spread on a banh mi sandwich.
Keep reading throughout the summer for more creative pesto ideas including the best ingredients for the more traditional pesto variations. The type of olive and quality of your extra virgin olive oil is just as important as the freshness of your basil.
Confession time: The photos I took of the original meal became corrupted and had to be deleted. The featured picture is a quick snap shot of the small amount (of the same pesto) left in the refrigerator. It was much brighter and colorful the first 3 days.