I Dunno, Lad, But It’s Green….(Cilantro Pesto)

I used to be a pesto purist.

Which meant I made it only out of Italian basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and olive oil. And I eschewed pestos made of other, untraditional herbs, cheeses and greens as being inferior copies of a perfect Italian sauce. Pesto was only made of Italian basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and olive oil, and just because someone ground up some green herbs, something cheesy and some garlic and olive oil together in a food processor did not mean they could or should call it pesto. It was really just some tasty green stuff that needed a name other than pesto, because it wasn’t pesto.

(You must forgive me for my rigidity–I’d been reading a lot of Marcella Hazan, and she really is a pesto purist.)

And then, I started adulterating it with heavy cream, because I found that the addition of cream slowed down the natural oxidation that causes the emerald green sauce to turn brown, and eventually black very soon after it’s added to hot pasta or whatever else you put it on. The addition of cream is not a method approved by Harold McGee, the great explainer of all questions culinary, but I found I liked it better than his suggestion to cook the pasta in acidulated water, which results in tart pasta (blech), or his belief that if you just use leaves and no stems or flowers bracts, the pesto will not darken (it still does, just more slowly), or his assertion that if you use pine nuts instead of walnuts, it doesn’t darken as much. The problem was that I used pine nuts in the first place and as soon as the oil is ground up with the basil leaves, the leaves oxidize and that’s just all there is to it.

So, I started adulterating the pesto. For some reason that I do not quite understand, except that perhaps the cream seals out the oxygen by coating the tiny basil leaf pieces, the addition of cream slows oxidation so much that it is essentially is no longer a problem. It keeps it brilliant green all through the length of an average meal.

But one adulteration leads to another, as most adventurous cooks already know.

I took to adding some raw spinach leaves to the food processor–about 1/10th of the total volume of the basil leaves–along with adding the reduced cream at the end. This resulted in a very green pesto that had a luxurious velvety mouthfeel thanks to the cream and still tasted of supremely fresh garlic and basil.

Then, I started reacting badly to tree nuts, and away the very expensive pine nuts went.

No one noticed. The pesto still tasted mighty amazing.

So, I took to adding some Aleppo chili flakes instead of black pepper and some Thai basil and lemon basil along with the regular Genovese basil that I had used for years.

At this point, I had dipped my toe into the heresies of unconventional pesto-making far enough, that I decided to jump in feet first and just go all the way.

What tipped me over the edge was a taste of some cilantro pesto that John Gutekanst of Avalanche Pizza had to dip some of his amazing bread he sells at the Athens Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. It was green, glorious and good, popping with fresh flavor that any cilantro and garlic lover would crave, but I still hated calling it pesto.

But what to call it? “I dunno, lad, but it’s green,” (Star Trek Geek points to the reader who knows who says this in what episode and in what context) is way too long of a name for a foodstuff, so I gave up and just call it Cilantro Pesto.

But mine is very different from John’s.

I figured if I was going off the chain and putting cilantro in pesto, I might as well just throw in whatever I felt like, and not be constrained by what other people might think was right and proper. Besides, I was already risking the wrath of Marcella Hazan, so I might as well go down with a happy tongue and a full stomach, right?

So, I added a few other herbs. Some basil. Thai basil. Some Italian parsley. A wee pinch of fresh spearmint. The greens of a scallion.

And, I put some other green things in–like a kale leaf for bitterness and some spinach leaves for color and vitamins.

And I left the Parmesan cheese out and replaced it with two year old super-sharp white cheddar made right her in Ohio.

And Aleppo pepper flakes. And, a smidge of black peppercorns.

Of course, garlic, but also a bit of scallion bottom–the white oniony bit.

And finally–olive oil.

No nuts. Sadly. I would have tossed in some black walnuts otherwise, because their assertive somewhat musky flavor and sweetness would have complimented the cilantro perfectly.

So, what did I use my wicked, subversive, heretical pesto on?

Well, I first used it as a condiment on a cheeseburger. And it was wonderful.

It’s also good on grilled chicken, as a bread dip and I bet it would make a great pizza sauce with toppings of fresh heirloom tomatoes, roasted red peppers and fried eggplant. It’s great mixed in scrambled eggs, though it does make them, well, a wee bit verdant-looking. So, if you are unlike Sam-I-Am and you do not like green eggs and ham, don’t put this pesto in your eggs.

But my favorite use has been to melt it on some just browned sauteed zucchini or yellow summer squash. Stirred up with the sweetly caramelized squash, it’s just rich, gooey, nummy and good.

Well, anyway, here’s the recipe. It’s super-easy and can be frozen for up to four months and thawed with no ill effects.

Oh, and unlike basil pesto–it doesn’t oxidize easily–so no need for the cream. (But, of course, you can add it to a cream sauce if you like…..)

Cilantro Pesto

3 cups tightly packed fresh cilantro leaves and fine stems, washed and well dried
1 3″ sprig of Thai basil leaves, removed from stem, washed and well dried
1 crown of Italian basil leaves (just the leaves at the tip of a branch–works out to about four leaves) washed and well dried
1/8 cup Italian parsley leaves, washed and well dried
4 mint leaves
light and dark green top of 1 scallion
2 kale leaves, big vein removed, washed and well dried
1/4 cup packed fresh raw baby spinach leaves, washed and well dried, big stems removed
1/4 cup two year old (or older if you have it) very sharp cheddar
1/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes
1/2 of the white of 1 scallion
head of garlic, cloves peeled and cut into chunks
olive oil as needed to make a sauce
salt and pepper to taste


Put all ingredients up to and including the garlic cloves into the bowl of a food processor.

Put the lid on the food processor and start it running. Drizzle olive oil slowly into the feed tube and continue until the ingredients coalesce into a finely ground, thick barely pourable sauce.

Add salt and pepper to taste, and go to town figuring out your favorite way to use this gregariously green stuff.

Note: If you want to make this vegan, replace the cheese with one good tablespoonful of white or shiro miso. I like Miso Master brand. Be careful with your salt addition if you use the miso though.


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  1. I can’t do pine nuts either (taste disturbances, eww), but I do love pesto, any way I can get it. Have you tried it made from garlic mustard?

    Comment by Megan Macartney — July 16, 2012 #

  2. Not yet, in large part because it doesn’t actually grow on our hillside. Weird, huh? But I do like it with ramps.

    Comment by Barbara — July 16, 2012 #

  3. Love your blog and am so happy it is back. You have improved my cooking – your suggestion of caramelizing onions in dishes has added a great flavor to anything I have made. I also love all of the Indian influenced recipes. Thank you so much.
    Have you ever tried blanching herbs before making pesto? (barely dunked in the hot water, then cooled in ice water). I have done this with basil and have been pleased with the bright green color and how it stays even when I freeze the sauce. I will make your recipe as it stands because I love cilantro. But, I think I will also try blanching the cilantro in the current recipe you have posted and see how it works.

    Comment by Cinda Webb — July 16, 2012 #

  4. I got this recipe and it taste even better. You made your own Cilantro Pesto and even a much better one too. Can you make another recipe using a tulsi tea from india which looks like on this article at http://organicindia.mercola.com/tulsi-tea.aspx ? I mean you used an Italian tulsi right? What I mean is an Indian tulsi. Or can you give me another recipe with this one?

    Comment by Lorena Porson — July 17, 2012 #

  5. Mr. Scott, describing some kind of booze. That’s all I know!

    For the record, your pestos are totally still pestos. The basil + olive oile + parm + S&P + pine nuts one is just one particular variety, pesto alla Genovese.

    I’ve been thinking about trying some kind of pesto with the Thai basil I’m growing in my garden. I had thought about mixing it with peanut oil instead of olive oil, and adding peanuts for the nuttiness that the pine nuts usually give, and fish sauce for the umami that the parm usually gives. Throwing in some cilantro would be tasty, but considering how fast my cilantro has bolted this year, I may have to buy it instead of picking it!

    Comment by Laura B. — July 17, 2012 #

  6. Laura–great minds think alike: a while back I made Thai pesto and used it on rice noodles with chicken. It is amazingly flavorful–the recipe is here:


    Comment by Barbara — July 17, 2012 #

  7. I don’t recall exactly which episode, but it was Scotty getting drunk with someone and they’d gone through just about all of the rest of the booze on board.

    If I were to put nuts in this pesto – which sounds just spectacular – what would you suggest?

    Comment by Jan's Sushi Bar — July 17, 2012 #

  8. Oh wow, that’s definitely what I was thinking of! Thanks for the recipe–that’ll eliminate some of the trial-and-error of proportions. 🙂

    Comment by Laura B. — July 17, 2012 #

  9. For those who want nuts but not pine nuts, I highly recommend pistachios. They help keep it green, too!

    Comment by John Murphy — July 17, 2012 #

  10. Good thought, John. Jan–I like John’s suggestion, but may I also suggest you try a few black walnuts? Toast them first, and go sparingly because they are strongly flavored, but then, that will help them stand up to the already strong flavors involved in the sauce.

    Laura–I knew you’d like it. The anchovy paste is what I used because I’m now allergic to shrimp. It really does a great stand in for the Parmesan cheese, which you cannot really taste as a separate ingredient anyway–it just adds the umami kick.

    Comment by Barbara — July 17, 2012 #

  11. Lorena–would you like me to make a tulsi pesto with Indian flavors? I can give it a shot–I grow tulsi in my garden. I might mix some fenugreek (methi) greens in as well.

    Give me a while and I’ll experiment and get back with you.

    Comment by Barbara — July 17, 2012 #

  12. I enjoyed this post, since I find different kinds of pesto sauces fun. I missed growing annuals last spring, so I’ll have to wait until next spring before I can try out nasturtium flower pesto. I look forward to seeing what you come up with the tulsi.

    Comment by Shreela — July 17, 2012 #

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