Spring has finally arrived here in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and while there is abundant weeding, tilling, planting and transplanting to be done, there just isn’t a great variety of food ready to harvest yet. I’ll never turn up my nose at a heaping pile of fresh greens, but sometimes I get the urge to experiment in the kitcen.
That’s where everyone’s favorite herbed sauce comes in. The traditional Italian iteration consists of basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan and olive oil, but pesto (as well as its cousins, French pistou, Argentinian Chimichurri and German Grüne Sosse) can be made with whatever combination of fresh herbs and greens, alliums, nuts, seeds, cheese or oil that you have available. What I found walking around our gardens and beds was field pea shoots, some volunteer green garlic and a rapidly expanding mass of lemon balm.
If you’ve never harvested pea shoots before, you’re missing out. They taste just like fresh peas but more leafy, and their curly ends add nice texture and visual appeal to sandwiches, stir fries and grain salads (i.e. anywhere you would use sprouts). To harvest, count down 1-2 leaves from the top of a stem. In the image to the right, you can see a little nub of new growth, just to the left of my thumb. Pinch the stem right above that. These particular shoots came from field peas that we planed as a cover crop, so they are a little on the chewy side, but still taste great.
So, on to the recipe. I usually estimate, taste, and tweak as I go along, but this time I actually measured for the sake of accuracy.
Pea Shoot and Lemon Balm Pesto
1 cup pea shoots, tightly packed
1 cup lemon balm, tightly packed
1-2 stalks green garlic
3 Tablespoons nutritional yeast (or a dry, crumbly cheese like Parmesan, Romano or Asiago)
1/4 cup nuts or seeds (I actually forgot to add these, and the pesto turned out fine)
1 teaspoon salt
2+ Tablespoons olive or other vegetable oil, to desired taste and texture
I usually blend everything in a food processor, but with a little more time and elbow grease, you could also make this with a very sharp knife or a mortar and pestle (fun fact: pesto and pestle have the same Latin root, meaning “to pound.”) I don’t think a blender will work unless you have one that is very high speed.
Since green garlic is the most fibrous ingredient, I started by blending it, cut 1 in. pieces. Then I added the pea shoots and lemon balm a small handful at a time, scraping down the sides of the processor in between blending. When the leaves are almost fully incorporated, add the nutritional yeast, nuts or seeds, salt, and whatever other seasonings you like. At this point, many pesto recipes recommend drizzling in the olive oil gradually as the food processor is running, but I normally just unceremoniously dump it all in at once and add more as needed. When you have achieved a slightly creamy, paste-like consistency, taste, make any last-minute additions, and you’re done!
As you can see, it takes a lot of greens to make only a little bit of sauce, which is why pesto can help go through bumper crops of herbs or strong flavored greens. It should keep in the fridge for up to a week, but is best served fresh. With delicate herbs like basil, put plastic wrap directly on the surface and press the air out to avoid browning. If you’ve made more than you can use in a few days, skip the oil and put dollops of pesto on a cookie sheet in the freezer, and transfer to an air tight freezer container when frozen, so you will have individual servings instead of a solid mass.
Play around with whatever green and nut combinations appeal to you most. I recently made a batch with some extra punchy arugula that had bolted, radish greens, and pumpkin seeds. I can’t wait to try this mixed herb pistachio or this cilantro pumpkin seed version.
Obviously, this sauce accompanies pasta perfectly (one of my favorites is pesto pasta with shelled edamame, peas, and goat cheese), but it’s also great on potatoes, mixed into a grain salad, stirred with some mayo and slathered on a sandwich, whisked into a vinaigrette, or otherwise added to any food that would benefit from some fresh herbs. Ramp pesto kneaded into biscuit dough is a personal favorite. I enjoyed this batch immediately by spreading some on buttered toast.