Pesto is a favorite flavoring for many foods, for example, pasta, rice, potatoes, grilled or braised chicken breasts or thighs and fish fillets. Pesto can be made from greens beyond basil, cheeses beyond Parmesan and nuts beyond pine nuts.
First, toast 1/3 cup nuts or seeds (varieties follow) in a dry skillet (no oil-cast iron works well), stir nuts or seeds, until lightly browned about 5-10 minutes. Timing depends on the thickness of the nuts.
Chose one of the following: Sliced or slivered almonds, walnut halves, cashews, pecan halves, whole hazelnuts, pistachios, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds or pepitas (hulled green pumpkin seeds). Once the skillet is hot, be sure to watch the nuts/seeds in the skillet as they brown quickly. Remove to a room temperature ceramic container so the nuts/seeds don’t continue browning. Let cool.
Pulse cool nuts in a food processor until finely ground. We recently made a delicious pesto, following the basic recipe, but substituted pistachios for pine nuts.
Second, chose a green herb/lettuce base. Add 3 cups total of a single herb/lettuce: Basil, parsley, cilantro, mint, chopped kale, arugula, watercress, chopped spinach or chopped romaine. For variety, choose up to three to make a flavor-blended pesto.
Third, choose a seasoning. Add up to three of the following seasonings for a total of 1/2 to 1 teaspoons: Chopped garlic, grated lemon zest, fresh chopped oregano, fresh chopped tarragon, fresh chopped rosemary and, if you want a kick, red pepper flakes.
Fourth, pick a cheese. Grate 1/2 cup cheese and add to the food processor and pulse to combine: Parmesan, asiago, pecorino, aged or smoked gouda, aged cheddar or gruyère.
Finish the pesto — Slowly pour in 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, pulsing to incorporate. The pesto is ready to flavor your food selections.
To increase a pesto’s flavor, transfer the pesto to a bowl and stir in 1/4 to 1/2 cup of any of the following: Sun dried tomatoes chopped, olives pitted and chopped, chopped roasted/grilled red peppers, chopped fresh tomatoes, ricotta or mascarpone.
The recipe makes about 1 cup pesto. Use about 1/2 cup for 1 pound pasta.
Braised chicken breasts/thighs/fish with pesto — Procedure: Lightly flour both sides of chicken breasts/thighs. On high to medium high heat, heat skillet or grill pan. Add oil and swirl in pan. Add the chicken breasts and brown to a rich golden color, about 3-5 minutes. This step of browning sears in the flavor and gives a striking appearance to the finished entrée.
Turn chicken over; add a liquid, (water, stock or wine) to cover just the bottom surface of the pan. Turn the heat down to low and cover the saucepan. Continue cooking on low until the chicken is done (thighs will take slightly longer than breasts). A good rule of thumb is that it takes 10 minutes per inch of chicken breast or fish steak. Change the cooking time to 5-6 minutes for fish fillets because being thinner, will cook quicker.
Place cooked chicken/fish fillets on a bed of mixed greens and garnish with any of today’s pesto variations or basil pesto, featured in the last column.
pistachio-basil butter — Process ¼ cup shelled unsalted pistachios (about 1 ounce), 10 basil leaves (a good substitution, if you don’t have fresh basil is ¼ cup fresh parsley and 2 teaspoons dried basil crumbled) and 1 garlic clove in a food processor until finely chopped. Add ½ cup butter and 1 teaspoon lime juice and process until all ingredients are incorporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Mold the butter into a roll and wrap in wax paper or parchment paper. Refrigerate until well chilled. (Pistachio butter can be prepared up to four days ahead.) Optional-for a creative finish, slice the butter and trim it with tiny cutters, then place the decorative cutout on the hot food just before serving.