This marks the first 'The Basics' post on Taste & See :) The idea behind this series is to provide you with a healthy take on simple recipes (like this basic pesto) that everyone should have as part of their basic kitchen repertoire. Having a reliable pesto recipe is definitely a must-have. This recipe plays a twist on the classic sauce by using almonds instead of pine nuts, and substituting a portion of the basil leaves with baby spinach. To be honest with you, the reason for this substitution was not for any reason other than the fact that the basil plants I had growing outside just did not have enough leaves to make a good batch of pesto. I opened the fridge and found a nice bag of baby spinach, and made a plan from there. The end result was a milder than normal, but still delicious, pesto. One thing that I hope to inspire all of you to do in the kitchen is to improvise where you can with ingredients that you have, are in season, and are more nutritious than the norm.
What is pesto?
Pesto is a Genovese sauce that traditionally consists of garlic, basil, and pine nuts, which are blended together with Parmesan cheese and olive oil to release the aroma and flavour of the basil . Having mentioned this, there are many different variations of Pesto, with some containing ingredients such as red bell peppers or sun dried tomatoes to impart a red colour to the sauce . My favourite is the traditional basil Pesto, or "Pesto Genovese" with a twist, depending on the ingredients available in the house. It's delicious when used as a spread, dip, pasta sauce, an extra addition to salad or cooked vegetables, or as an accompaniment to meat dishes. I love adding this pesto to scrambled eggs (Green Eggs & Ham anyone?)
Here's an interesting fact about spinach. We've all watched Popeye at some point in our lives, and have been led to believe that spinach was the source of strength that his muscles needed in times of trouble. Interestingly enough this popular misconception arose due to a simple calculation error that was made when a food analyst calculated the iron content of spinach, which suggested that spinach contained more than 10 times the amount that it actually does .
Despite this misconception, spinach is filled with many beneficial nutrients that are good for our bodies. These include vitamin C and lutein, both of which have antioxidant properties, as well as beta carotene and potassium . Spinach is also a particularly useful source of folate (vitamin B9), which is of particular importance for pregnant women to prevent neural tube defects in a developing foetus. Folate is essential for the synthesis of DNA building blocks, which play an important role in cell replication and differentiation during pregnancy . Spinach also contains a significant amount of chlorophyll, which you can read about here. The nutritional benefits of spinach are masked slightly by its high oxalic acid content. This compound binds with dietary calcium and iron, limiting their absorption, however studies have shown that very large amounts of spinach will need to be eaten on a regular basis for this to be a big problem in most healthy individuals . So eat your spinach :) Just not buckets of the stuff.
Before you start, here's a good tip - you can make a batch of pesto and use it at a later stage (bonus!). If you want to freeze it, leave the cheese out of the recipe, fill each space in an ice cube tray with pesto and freeze it. Once frozen, remove from the ice tray and store the pesto in a freezer bag. When you're ready to use some of the pesto, defrost it and mix in some grated Parmesan cheese. Easy peasy!
2 cups basil leaves
1 cup baby spinach
1/4 cup raw almonds, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 lemon, juice and zest
20 g Parmesan, grated
Salt & pepper, to taste
- Place the basil leaves, baby spinach, garlic clove, almonds, and extra virgin olive oil into a blender (I use my NutriBullet, it works like a charm).
- Blitz until all of the ingredients are chopped up and mixed well. Scrape down the sides of the blender if necessary to incorporate all of the ingredients. Just a note here for students who may live in res, or others who just don't have a standing blender, a hand blender will also do a great job of this, you might just need some extra olive oil or some water to assist you. Just make sure to use a bowl or jug with high sides to prevent green stuff from flying all over the place :)
- Add the lemon juice and zest, Parmesan cheese, 1/2 tsp of salt, and 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper. Blitz until incorporated.
- Taste the pepper and adjust the salt and pepper to suit your taste.
 DeLallo. A Marvel of Simplicity: Pesto Alla Genovese [Internet]. Pennsylvania: George E. Delillo Co., Inc. [unknown date] [cited 2016 Aug 9]. Available from: http://www.delallo.com/articles/marvel-simplicity-pesto-alla-genovese.
 Clasen L, Kramer P, McWhirter A, editors. Food's That Harm, Foods That Heal. 2nd ed. South Africa: Heritage Publishers (Pty) Limited, 2000. 400 p.
 Finglas PM, Wright AJA. Folate availability and health. Phytochem Rev. 2002;1:189-98.