Most pizza shops have two categories of pies. Red or white. But what about that illusive third option? Green. Pesto can be a replacement for sauce or used as a topping. It can be made vegan or extra cheesy. There are endless ingredients that you can use in a pesto, and spring just happens to offer some of the best. While you can grow a lot of fresh herbs year-round, the next couple of months are when they tend to thrive, and different varietals of allium are popping up, such as spring garlic.
As long as you have the right ratio of certain components, you can sub out ingredients to create an indefinite amount of possible pestos. Every pesto needs to have: a base, which is traditionally herbs or greens, nuts/seeds, garlic/other allium, cheese and oil. Of course, if you’re making it dairy or nut free there are substitutions that can be made, and we will get into that shortly.
For the greens, you can use basil, cilantro, chives, parsley, kale, chard, beet greens or any other herb or green you want. Same goes for the nut portion. The most traditional is pine nuts but since they can be pricey or if you are simply looking for another flavor profile they can be substituted with walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds. Cheese is a little different. Ideally you want to use a hard, aged varietal. I’ve always been partial to grated Parmigiano Reggiano, but if you’re looking for something a bit saltier, you could always use Pecorino. As far as garlic goes, feel free to switch it out for another allium. Spring garlic, ramps and garlic scapes are awesome in the short window that they are available. You can also try leeks, shallots or black garlic. Extra virgin olive oil is always my preference for pesto.
Once you get a basic recipe down, you can get creative. Want to make it spicy? Throw in some jalapeños, Serranos or even ghost peppers. You can take the spice to a different level by pickling or roasting the peppers. Like yours on the sweet side? Replace a little of the oil with a few tablespoons of honey, agave or maple syrup. Want a little umami flavor? Go ahead, toss in some truffle salt.
Some people are stark traditionalists when it comes to pesto, and if I’m being honest, a great basil and pine nut pesto is still my favorite. Tony Gemignani has always done a fantastic pesto. He might use basic ingredients, but he puts care into what they are. His recipe is comprised of fresh basil, pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano, garlic, olive oil and, as a twist, he throws in a little agave syrup. He pairs his pesto with everything from a simple mozzarella and tomato to purple potato pie. Most recently I saw him making Green Top Detroits. Now, I’m not a Detroit pizza expert by any means, but this isn’t something I have seen. It looked gorgeous and utterly delicious.
Recently, I’ve noticed a few other really fun and creative pestos that have stuck in my head and made me want to hop on a plane to go try them. Chris Decker of Metro Pizza makes a Peppadew pesto. Unlike other pestos where the basil and garlic comprise the main flavor profile, the Peppadews are the star of the show in this one. He pairs it with sausage links and caramelized onions. Another really interesting pesto I saw on Instagram was a beetroot pesto from A Dopo in Knoxville, Tennessee. Owner, Brian Strutz, said that their manager, Andrew, came up with the recipe. In addition to the cooked and pureed beets, they add in walnuts, lemon juice, chives and parsley. The bright red is visually gorgeous, especially during the grey winter months.
At my Slice Shop our house pesto is actually vegan. This is because we get a lot of requests for vegan pies, and pesto is an easy thing to make dairy and meat free. Another reason for its veganism is that I don’t like to make two versions of the same thing, so we don’t waste space or time. I’ve seen people do vegan pestos with nutritional yeast or vegan Parmesan in place of the cheese, but I like to simply add a hit of fresh lemon juice and some sea salt to balance out the flavors.
I’m all about cross-utilization at my restaurant. I like to get multiple uses out of all of my ingredients and pesto is fantastic for so many different things. Of course, it is brilliant on pizza. It can brighten up any pie. But it is also great as an appetizer or a pasta sauce. It can be lathered on crusty bread for bruschetta, used as a marinade for chicken, baked with burrata and sun-dried tomatoes, drizzled on top of fresh mozzarella or feta, turned into a salad dressing, or used as a dipping sauce for focaccia. There are endless options just with pasta. It can be served hot with a nice bucatini or Strichetti, layered in lasagna, or one of my favorites is a simple cold pesto pasta salad.
As you can see, all pestos are not created equal, even if you’re following an exact recipe. There are a few things to keep in mind and a few tricks to make it come out as close to perfect as possible. First off, think about your garlic. The garlic is what will give pesto its kick, assuming you’re not adding any other peppers or spicy ingredients. Where does your garlic come from? Is it green in the middle? What time of year is it? All of these factors will determine how spicy the garlic is and thus the final product of your pesto.
Next is keeping that vibrant green color. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice will help with that. The acidity will also balance out the flavors. Another trick is to add a few ice chips when you are blending the basil. This slows down the oxidation and retains the bright green color. Another trick that Tony let me in on is to make your bulk batch more concentrated and then add more oil right before using it. He also puts the pesto on post-bake so that it not only retains its color, but also keeps the oil from making the pizza too wet. It’s a trick that I am now doing and love the results I am getting. That being said, if you are using pesto as a base on your pizzas and not as worried about the color, it can be a great way to use up basil that has started to turn a little darker.
As you can see, the possibilities are endless when it comes to pesto. So, create your go-to recipe and then explore all of the possibilities by substituting different ingredients. Below is a recipe for a vegan chive pesto. It’s vegan because I will assume that it is a common request everywhere for more vegan options, and homemade always sells better on a menu. Its main ingredient is chives because I just can’t seem to get enough of them lately.
Vegan Chive Pesto
Get the Vegan Chive Pesto recipe.
Audrey Kelly owns Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, Colorado.