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It's Easy Being Green
Just don't call it pesto
This article is not about pesto. It’s not about pesto because one of my former Chefs is from Liguria and would probably reach through her computer screen to strangle me if I told you that this is about pesto.
Pesto, you see, is a very specific thing, particularly when you’re referring to pesto alla genovese, the famous basil and pine nut sauce of the region around Genoa, Italy. I’ve had pesto in Genoa and it was incredible, but it in no way qualifies me to say that the pesto I make at home is authentic.
And that’s the thing about Italian cuisine. With French cooking there is general understanding of what’s what. In Italian cuisine, you could learn a recipe from an Italian cook and someone from a village 10 miles down the road will tell you it’s wrong. You might be using what seem to be the exact same ingredients but they will have been grown in the wrong place, picked at the wrong time, combined in the wrong way or using the wrong tools. I had an Italian mother in law so I learned this the hard way.
But if you can accept that you’ll never make something that satisfies everyone’s notions of authenticity you can have a lot of fun making green sauces, of which pesto is only one of many. The French have pistou, British have mint sauce, the Argentinians chimichurri, the Germans Grüne Soße, and the many Spanish-speaking cultures share the term salsa verde with Italians and the recipes are as diverse as the cooks who make them.
Knowing how to make a green sauce is one of the most satisfying kitchen skills: It’s a great way to use up your tender herbs (before they get slimy), it’s a palette for your creativity, and it goes with almost anything: meat, fish, pasta, bread, eggs, vegetables, and certain variations could even go with fruit. They can be rich and creamy or sharp and herbal, and contain nuts, seeds, cheese, breadcrumbs, yogurt, or none of the above.
There’s a green sauce to suit any taste and if there isn’t you can invent it yourself.
You will need a food processor, though a mini chopper or a blender will do. I find blenders unwieldy for smaller quantities of sauce since most of it ends up stuck to the blades and up the sides and frequently defies my spatula, but if you’re making sauce in quantity it ought to be fine. Mini choppers are an affordable substitute for a food processor in most situations but they frequently lack a tube at the top that allows you to add ingredients while the motor is running, which is a slight pain in the ass.
You can get super traditional and use a mortar and pestle (the traditional way to make pesto, by the way) but I’m not going to explain that today because A. I don’t own the right type and B. I don’t want to send you running to the store for a new tool you may not use much - green sauce ought not be that kind of thing.
A few words about ingredients. The key ingredient is your green stuff: a single variety of tender herb like parsley, basil, cilantro, mint, tarragon, sage or the like, or a combination driven either by creativity or the contents of your fridge. Kale, arugula, spinach, or chard leaves? They work too. I’ve even make a green sauce from the deliciously celery-like leaves and stems of the lovage plant. While you don’t want a ton of stems it’s not necessary to pick off each leaf individually, particularly with very tender stems like those of cilantro. A bit of water on the leaves from a rinse is not a problem either - just drain and pat mostly dry.
Garlic is a staple ingredient in almost all of the green sauces and for good reason. Raw garlic packs an incredible amount of flavour and even contains some emulsifiers. They aren’t as powerful as the egg yolk in mayonnaise or the mustard in a vinaigrette, but they are what thickens toum, the awesome sauce you get on with your shawarma platters. We aren’t using anywhere approaching toum-level of garlic, but your green sauce will hold together a bit more than you would expect from a straight oil and vinegar combination. And because you’re using the garlic raw it’s worth picking out the green germ just as you would if you were making mayonnaise.
You’ll also need some oil. Approach this much in the same way you would making a vinaigrette - neutral oils are fine, but something with a little more character like olive or avocado is desirable. You’re consuming this raw so the smoke point isn’t the point - use your pricey stuff if that’s your jam.
The other major variable is your acid. Again, approach this much as you would for a vinaigrette. White vinegar is too harsh, but any of the wine vinegars or sour citrus would be great. You’ll only need a few tablespoons, but the exact quantity is something you’ll adjust as you taste.
Beyond that you can be a little creative. That half a jalapeno pepper in your fridge? In it goes. A few pistachios, sunflower seeds, or walnuts? Why not? That not-exactly-authentic parmigiano-type cheese you have? Yep. Zest from that sad orange in the fruit bowl? Sure! Squeeze in the juice too while you’re at it.
Thankfully the actual making of green sauce is much less work than the explanation and the only really fiddly part is cleaning and picking the greens. I’m going to show you the sauce I made this week and suggest some rough quantities. Don’t think of it as a recipe, but as a starting point.
Measuring cups and spoons
Clean kitchen towel
2 tightly-packed cups of herbs (I’m using flat-leaf parsley and cilantro)
3/4 cup olive oil
3-4 cloves of peeled garlic
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Two finger pinch of red chili flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste (I’m starting with about 1/2 teaspoon of each)
Trim herbs from the stems and rinse. Pick out any large stems.
Shake herbs dry and roll up in a clean kitchen towel.
Peel and de-germ garlic.
Place herbs, garlic, chili flakes, oregano, and salt and pepper in the processor and give it a few spins to start chopping the herbs and garlic. If you are adding nuts or cheese add them now.
Process for about 1 minute, stopping now and then to scrape down the sides of the bowl with your spatula.
With the motor running, start adding your oil. If you are using a mini-chopper or processor that you must stop and start, add the oil in increments of about 2 tablespoons.
When about 2/3 of your oil has been incorporated, switch to adding the vinegar. You may not need all of it, so add about half and continue processing.
Continue processing for another minute. By now your sauce will have come together and look like this.
Taste! You may need a little more vinegar if it tastes flat, a little more salt if it tastes bland, or even a bit more oil if it’s too harsh. Err on the side of pungent though - the sauce’s flavour will mellow out a great deal in the next couple of hours.
When you’re happy with your sauce pour it into a container and refrigerate for a couple of hours. Serve with everything.
Your green sauce will keep up to a week in the fridge, which is a lot longer than a bunch of herbs will. The acidity will mellow over time and the herbs will shine even stronger. And while it keeps well, it likely won’t keep for long because you’ll be putting it on or in everything. While it’s delicious with grilled steak or other proteins you’d do well to mix it with mayo for a sandwich spread, toss it with roasted vegetables or boiled potatoes, or drizzle it over pizza.
You’ll be plotting your next batch before you’ve finished your first one - it’s that easy being green.