Okay, I know what you’re thinking: “Frugal pesto – huh?” Let me explain. This is the pesto I make every year with our garden basil – enough to last us all winter by storing it in the freezer. We use it on artisan bread instead of butter (if you haven’t tried this, you really should- but be warned, it can be addicting…), as the sauce on homemade pizza, and in Creamy Pesto Pasta, among other things.
This, then, qualifies as a “pantry basic” which is anything you use regularly that is often just purchased. It’s very easy to make taking a just few minutes to whir together in a food processor. And of course making it at home is very frugal. But that’s not what I mean by calling it frugal pesto. The pesto I make has an alternative (aka, secret) ingredient that drastically decreases the cost of the most expensive ingredient in traditional basil pesto, pine nuts.
I use sunflower seeds. Not walnuts (too strong) or some other seed or nut, just mild-mannered sunflower seeds.
I know, label me a traditional pesto heretic but I just can’t justify the expense. And we’re talking three times the cost of sunflower seeds. Now, when I made pesto for the first time years ago I did buy pine nuts. I almost hyperventilated, but I did it to be “real.” And you know what? I couldn’t taste the pine nuts inside all the garlic, basil and Parmesan. And if I’m going to spend almost $10/lb. for something, I better be able to taste it!
But I didn’t really tell anyone (out of embarrassment? shame? guilt? I’ll let you decide…) until the time we had Brian’s cousin and his family to dinner. Now this cousin is an incredible gourmet cook and has made us many memorable meals. Most of which he duplicated by taste from some fancy restaurant. In other words, way out of my league.
I served pesto with the bread (what was I thinking?) and he said, “There’s something different with this pesto- what is it?”
Uh-oh. Gulp, “I…um…used sunflower seeds instead of pine nuts. Can I get anyone more water?”
And get this- he says, “I don’t usually like pesto, but this is really good!” To say I breathed a sigh of relief is an understatement.
So I no longer hold my head down in shame when I say the secret ingredient in my pesto. In fact, I think it’s a pretty smart and frugal way to make pesto.
Making pesto is so easy. Start by removing the basil leaves from the stems and washing them. I like to use kitchen shears, otherwise I spend the last months of summer with green finger and thumb nails also known as “basil fingers.”
I dry them by laying them in a towel and rolling them up to rest while I continue with the recipe. And here’s a tip I learned by accident: if you get this far in the process (or it’s all you have time for…) you can place this rolled, damp towel in a baggie, seal it, and the basil will last for up to a week (though it’s best after about four days) in the refrigerator.
Place five cloves of garlic (if you like it really garlicky, increase to six) in a food processor and chop, then add Parmesan cheese and sunflower seeds. Whir until finely chopped.
Add basil leaves and process until chopped. With the motor running, slowly pour in 3/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Add salt to taste (if using salted sunflower seeds, you will need less).
To freeze for later, place serving-size portions of pesto in containers for the freezer. I’ve saved little glass jars over the years specifically to use for freezing pesto. I’ve not had a problem with breakage in the years I’ve been reusing the jars and they’re easy to defrost and use on the table.
A few years ago (wow, I think it might actually be almost 10 years- eek!), The Oregonian ran an article recommending adding a bit of lemon juice to each batch and covering with a layer of olive oil. The oil acts like a barrier to keep it fresher, and the lemon juice helps it last longer and stay a brighter green longer after opening.
Oh, and don’t forget to keep track of how many you “put up” on your nifty freezer chalkboard (don’t have one? A magnetic whiteboard will work great, too!), so you won’t run out in the middle of winter. Oh the horror!*PRINT
An Oregon Cottage’s “Secret Ingredient” Frugal Pesto
- 5-6 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/4 c. sunflower seeds
- 1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
- 2-1/2 c. lightly packed basil leaves, washed and dried
- 1 Tb. lemon juice (optional, but seems to keep pesto a brighter green after opening)
- 3/4 c. olive oil (plus more if freezing)
- 1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
- Pulse garlic in a food processor until minced. Add seeds and cheese, pulse a few times to chop, and then add the basil and continue to process until all is finely chopped. Add lemon juice, if using.
- With the machine running, add the oil in a fine stream. Process until pesto is smooth. Add salt to taste (less will be needed if using salted sunflower seeds).
- To store in the freezer, pour about 1/2 cup into containers, add a shallow layer of olive oil to the tops, label with date and freeze. Keeps for about a year, if it lasts that long.
Makes about 1-1/4 cups.
*I’m only half kidding about the horror…we really are sad if we run out!