Extemporaneous Chef: 3 recipes for Homemade Pesto

When you or your local store don't have what the Pesto recipe calls for but you've got something comparative, make it up as you go along.

Ever just "know" that something will work? Of course, you can't really know until the results of that something are tested. And that's the great thing about cooking: Putting together ingredients to reach a desired or a new (and surprisingly desirable) dish or flavors for a dish. This week, the kitchen of the Extemporaneous Chef broke out the Comparative Culinary Studies to nail a great Pesto Sauce.

Now, Pesto is a traditional Genoan sauce made with crushed garlic, basil, pine nuts, olive oil, parmesan and Fiore Sardo (a cheese made from sheep's milk). It is an extremely versatile sauce and can be employed for various pastas, can be used in tortilla-like roll-ups (then cut to make pinwheel hors d'oeuvres), and thickened to use as a dip. But Pesto is also a sauce that can be played with to get a desired taste.

Thinking about making a simple homemade Pesto Sauce to mix with spaghetti, it didn't take long to come across this recipe:

Fresh Basil Pesto
(from Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes)

2 cups fresh Basil leaves (packed)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Romano cheese
1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/3 cup Pine Nuts or Walnuts
3 medium sized Garlic Cloves (minced)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper (to taste)

Directions:

Combine pine nuts and basil in a processor and pulse a few times. (With walnuts instead of pine nuts that are not already chopped, pulse a few times before adding basil.) Add garlic, pulse several times.

Then slowly add olive oil in a constant stream while the processor is on. Stop and scrape down sides of the processor (using a rubber spatula). Add grated cheese. Pulse until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

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Simple enough; right? Would've worked like a charm, if this part-time cook had half of the ingredients. So it's off to the store. They're out of pine nuts and fresh basil. So what's a guy to do. Well, there's always that bunch of cilantro... Wonder if that will work?

Sure enough, there's several Pesto recipes using cilantro that can be found via Google, but one in particular jumped out. Oddly enough, it was by the same recipe sharer, Elise Bauer.

Cilantro Pesto
(from Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes)

2 cups Cilantro (packed, large stems removed)
1/2 cup blanched Almonds
1/4 cup chopped Red Onion
1/2 teaspoon chopped and seeded Serrano Chile
1 teaspoon Kosher Salt
1/4 cup Olive Oil

Directions:

Combine cilantro, almonds, onion, chile, salt in a processor. Pulse until desired consistency is achieved. Slowly add olive oil. Pulse and blend.

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Doing a little research, it wasn't difficult to find that all types of vegetables were used to make pesto -- like broccoli and asparagus and parsley. And the almonds were a great idea. But this winger chef was back at home by the time the discovery was made that almonds could be used. Instead, the call had been made to go with Sunflower Nuts.

Spicy Cilantro Pesto with Sunflower Nuts
(from the kitchen of the Extemporaneous Chef)

2 cups Cilantro (chopped)
1/2 cup Sunflower Nuts (kernels)
1/2 cup Parmesan Cheese
4 tablespoons Garlic (minced)
1/2 tablespoon Serrano Chile
1/2 cup Virgin Olive Oil
Dash of Cayenne Pepper

Directions:

Combine cilantro, garlic, serrano chile, sunflower kernels, parmesan, and cayenne into processor and pulse to desired consistency. Slowly add olive oil, pulsing to blend.

(Hint: the more one pulses, the thicker the sauce. If sauce becomes thicker than desired, added in little olive oil at a time will make the sauce more fluid.)

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It might comes as a bit of a surprise, but using the sunflower kernels was an excellent idea. They're not pine nuts, mind you, but if you don't have any pine nuts to hand (and your grocery store is out), sunflower kernels work just fine.

This particular Pesto Sauce was mixed with spaghetti and served with a side of sauteed yellow squash, cherry tomatoes and basil. Having a bit of the Pesto left over, it was used later as a spread over cracked pepper crackers for a light snack.

(photo credit: Cliff Hutson, Wikimedia Commons)