You can put whatever you want on top of a pizza and still have a “pizza.” Pies can have an infinity of fillings and still be “pies.” The name is all about the structural concept of the dish, not the details. Category dishes like pizzas and pies are fun to play with — although you have a starting point to get your culinary imagination whisking along, in the end, you can do whatever you like. (Some people would say that pizzas are pies!)
Pesto is another fun-to-play-with category dish. We’re used to making pesto with basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and perhaps some Parmesan. But there are plenty of fresh, leafy herbs to use in place of the basil…and plenty of nuts or seeds to use in place of pine nuts (which are actually seeds from a pine cone, not nuts). Even the cheese is open to interpretation: an aged Spanish Manchego has a salty, almost-tangy flavor that also pairs well with fresh herbs and creamy nuts. Aged American Cheddars do, too.
Swapping out your pesto parts at will also means you’re more likely to have some useful ingredients on hand (maybe you have walnuts instead of pine nuts), plus almonds and cashews and many other nuts are less expensive than pine nuts. Sunflower seeds are another thriftily delicious ingredient possibility.
If you use oily nuts like walnuts or pecans, just be sure to first toast them in a dry saucepan over medium heat for about 4-5 minutes or until the nuts are fragrant and slightly browned. Any nut gains a deeper flavor when toasted, but the higher oil content of certain nuts makes them more likely to grind into a paste than into nut crumbs, and pesto is made by placing your ingredients in a food processor and whizzing them until you have very finely minced nuts and herbs. (You could chop the mixture by hand, too, but of course that takes a lot more effort.)
Note: pesto comes together very quickly and must be served immediately, so be sure to have whatever you’re going to serve with the pesto ready BEFORE you actually blend the pesto ingredients.
2-4 cloves garlic (if you sautée them first, use 4 cloves; if you use them raw, only use 1 or 2 cloves)
Two handfuls of fresh cilantro leaves (about 2 cups gently filled — don’t smash the leaves)
1/4 cup slivered or sliced almonds
1-2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of sea salt
If you’d prefer sautéed garlic over raw garlic — I’m a Latin dancer, so I do! — coarsely chop the cloves and then sautée them in the olive oil over medium-low heat for about 3 minutes or until the cloves are starting to turn golden brown. Remove from heat.
Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend in bursts until you have a homogenous mixture of herbs, garlic, and nuts/seeds, adding more oil if your pesto is looking dry. Either serve IMMEDIATELY (toss with pasta, spoon over chicken or fish, add more oil to make it into a dressing or marinade) or immediately place in a container that’s just big enough to hold the pesto and pour a thin layer of oil over the top to protect it from the air. Cilantro is a hardier herb than basil, but even so, any time you chop up fresh herbs, their cut edges quickly begin to turn black — oxidize — from exposure to air. Adding an acidic element like lemon juice slows down that process, but I find that the lemon flavor overrides the flavor of the pesto; I’d rather plan on eating it right away than winding up with lemony pesto. Then again, you might love lemony pesto!
You can serve your pesto with any trimmings that tickle your culinary fancy: tomatoes, additional nuts, cheese, roasted veggies, you name it. I think the cilantro variety goes especially well with fresh cherry tomatoes.