Basil pesto is still many months away but there’s no need to wait for basil to make a pesto sauce. Pesto refers to the process of making the sauce—pounding in a mortar and pestle or pureeing in a food processor—not to the ingredients. Experimenting with other greens than basil and different nuts and cheese than pine nuts and Parmesan results in some tasty sauces. One of my favorite discoveries is arugula pesto made with arugula, toasted hazelnuts, Pecorino Romano cheese, garlic and olive oil.
Pesto from arugula leaves is an especially good choice right now because the arugula plants that have provided such tasty salads and sandwich greens all winter are now going to seed and the remaining leaves are a little more pungent, perfect for a sauce. Another great winter substitute for basil is kale.
The other night I made a batch of arugula pesto from a final harvest of the arugula that has been growing all winter in the cold frame at the edge of my kitchen garden. I wanted to clear out the cold frame and replant with lettuce, radishes and spring turnips anyway, so it didn’t feel too destructive to cut a row of arugula plants off at the base and pile them in a basket.
Back in the kitchen, I pulled off all the usable leaves and set the stalks aside for compost. After washing the leaves and spinning them dry, I had a lot of arugula, about eight cups, loosely packed, enough to make about three cups of pesto. I grated enough Pecorino Romano to make a cup and a half of cheese, toasted a generous one-third cup of hazelnuts, and peeled three garlic cloves. Then I processed the garlic in the Cuisinart and added the hazelnuts and processed them briefly.
Next I packed half of the arugula into the Cuisinart bowl, added half a cup of olive oil and processed them briefly. They quickly turned into a smooth puree. I added the rest of the arugula and another half a cup of olive oil and processed again. Finally I added the grated cheese, processed again briefly and I was done. I didn’t add any salt because the cheese is quite salty. There was enough pesto for three or four pasta dinners. The pesto keeps for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.
While I was making pesto, Scott rolled out a batch of emmer farro flour fettuccini and started it boiling. When the pesto hit the just drained pasta, the fragrant blend of arugula, garlic, hazelnuts and cheese filled the air as Scott snapped a photo before we filled our plates. This bright green, richly flavored pesto was every bit as delicious as basil pesto and a real treat on a chilly March night.