“No tricks, gimmicks, special pills, special potions, special equipment. All it takes is desire and will.”
A few years back my husband and I fell in love with pesto. What is pesto? Pesto is a green sauce of Italian origin, traditionally made by pounding together basil leaves, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts and garlic, blended with olive oil. The very word, pesto, means to pound or crush and originally mortar and pestle were used to prepare this sauce, as many other sauces in different parts of the world, including our own mint and green chilli chutney in the Indian subcontinent. In fact pesto bears a close resemblance to our South Asian style mint chutney.
Going back to our love affair with pesto – in those days we were looking for healthy spreads for our morning slice. After much exploration, we found pesto in one of the leading grocery stores in Lahore. It looked interesting and on trying it out we found it to be very flavourful and versatile. We could not only spread it on crispy toasted bread but also use it as a dip for fresh vegetables, toss into pasta and salads. To our dismay, we found that only that one store sold pesto, at quite a high price for a tiny jar, and then they too didn’t have it always.
Naturally, I started searching for recipes to make it at home. I couldn’t find fresh basil in Lahore, but many recipes suggested, to my relief, that pesto could be made using other greens too. There started endless flavour experiments in my kitchen, using different ingredients each time to make pesto variations. I substituted the difficult to find and pricey ingredients with easily available stuff. I almost never use Parmesan cheese to make pesto because I always have the rennet free, Homemade Paneer Cheese in my fridge which provides a low fat, protein and calcium rich alternative. Also it is a great source of conjugated linoleic acid that speeds up the fat burning process in body and helps lose weight.
Coming to greens, you can choose from spinach, mint, cilantro/coriander, parsley, arugula, mustard greens, garlic greens, spring onions and even lightly cooked peas and broccoli. The choices are unlimited!
Now the most pricey thing in the mix is pine nuts, at least in Lahore. Luckily, pine nuts can also be replaced with any of your favourite nuts – I’ve experimented with almonds, cashews and walnuts but found roasted peanuts the cheapest and quite flavourful.
Below is my basic pesto recipe. You can mix n match any of the above mentioned ingredients in different proportions for pesto variations to suit your taste and budget.
The moral of this whole long story is that you can make pesto out of pretty much anything, people! All you need is a leafy green, a nut and cheese of your choice. Add it to whatever you fancy – stir into soups, stuff into chicken breast or slather onto fillet of fish.
Oh, and I forgot to mention – I have a whole flowerbed full of fresh basil in my garden now. Basil is actually a pretty forgiving plant. I’m not at all a pro when it comes to gardening but I grew my basil plants quite successfully from seeds. All you need is start before the weather gets really warm, a well-drained soil and a few hours of good sunlight. The plants need protection from frost.
3 cups loosely packed fresh Basil leaves
3/4 cup paneer cheese
3/4 cup roasted peanuts
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
salt to taste
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
This Is What You Do:
Wash and pat dry basil leaves.
Add basil leaves, garlic and lemon juice to a food processor. Process until finely minced.
Add cheese and peanuts, process again till the peanuts are mixed with the other ingredients.
Add seasoning of black pepper and salt. If your peanuts are already salted, you might not need to add anymore salt.
Gradually pour the olive oil, through the feed tube while the food processor is running, as we do while making mayonnaise, until the mixture is creamy and combined.
Makes 2+1/2 cups