Nasturtium pesto might sound a bit strange, but if you like the slightly bitter taste of nasturtium leaves (or rocket/arugula, if you’ve never tasted nasturtium leaves), you’ll love it. In fact the basic recipe is very similar to that of traditional basil pesto, only we’re varying the leaves.
Traditional pesto can be pricey though, which is not surprising given some of its original ingredients – parmesan cheese and pine nuts, neither of which is particularly cheap. Luckily, you can create something that tastes quite similar using more reasonably-priced ingredients, in this case, cheddar cheese (leave this out if you want a vegan or pure paleo version) and toasted sunflower seeds.
Personally I don’t think you can replace the other traditional ingredient, olive oil – but feel free to try if you want to make it cheaper still. Making pesto does tend to use quite a bit of oil, so if you can use olive oil, do so since it’s delicious and so good for you (which sunflower and canola oil are not).
I’ve made basil pesto many times, mostly using my version of the recipe. I had the idea to try using nasturtium leaves one day when my garden was particularly full of them, growing in amongst my other veggies and herbs. The garden needed some clearing, so rather than throwing out some of the nasturtiums, I decided to experiment with them in pesto.
Funny enough, since then, I’ve come across a couple of recipes for nasturtium pesto, so clearly my instincts were on track there!
In Cape Town, where I live, nasturtiums grow wild in many open spaces, so if I didn’t have any in my garden, I could easily just go and harvest some wild ones. If they’re not readily accessible near you though, you can use whatever other leaves you have on hand, which will each give you a different flavour e.g.
- Basil – I’ve used both annual and perennial basil
- Spinach or Swiss chard
- Dandelion leaves
My other favourite, apart from nasturtium, is rocket (arugula) pesto, which I often make when my rocket bushes start looking like this:
You could even mix the leaves if you’re feeling really adventurous, perhaps using some spinach or chard to bulk it up, and adding herbs to give the pesto a stronger taste. Whatever you use though, you’ll need quite a lot of it as it grinds down very small (imagine the difference between fresh vs cooked spinach quantities, only much more so).
Of course there are all sorts of other pestos out there too e.g. olive, sun-dried tomato, beet, etc, so we’re just talking leafy ones here.
For the rest of the ingredients, the quantities are very subject to how much you have on hand and to your taste. Experiment until you find the combo that you love, which might be more or less garlicky, cheesy or nutty.
By the way, you can buy toasted sunflower seeds, but it’s much cheaper to buy raw ones (already shelled though, unless you want to spend hours doing that yourself). Then simply use a drop of oil – I use olive or coconut, but you could use any kind – in a pan and gently toast for a few minutes, stirring all the time as they burn easily, until they’re slightly browned. Look out for my upcoming post on sunflower seeds in due course… They are also SO good for you!
Traditionally, of course, pesto would have been made with a mortar and pestle, which requires a lot of elbow grease. If you’re lucky enough to have a blender with a grinder attachment, your task will be much easier. I suggest using a small bowl to do your blending in though – the leaves start out very bulky but the quantity quickly reduces.
Serve it exactly as you would traditional basil pesto, e.g.
- In pasta or rice dishes
- On hot veggies
- On steak or a burger
- On chicken
- On pizza
- As a topping on toast or pastry snacks
- In savoury scones or bread
- With any form of egg – scrambled, boiled, omelette, etc
- On anything with cheese
- In salad dressing
- As a dip (I like it mixed with yoghurt or cream cheese)
- Etc, etc
- A good bowlful/bagful of nasturtium leaves – or whatever other leaves you have on hand
- A handful of grated cheese – cheddar works well, especially if it’s mature
- A handful of toasted sunflower seeds
- 1 – 2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly sliced
- ½ – 1c olive oil
- Pinch of salt
Harvest your leaves and give them a wash to get rid of any dirt or insects. The flowers are very pretty too and I often add them to salads, along with the leaves. I haven’t tried adding them to pesto, but you could if you like.
You’ll see nasturtium leaves shrug off the water like this, so just pat them dry as best you can – they don’t have to be perfect.
Now fill your blender/grinder with some leaves to start off with – you’ll probably need to work in batches, which luckily each process very quickly. You can add your garlic at this stage too, as it’s good to get it thoroughly mixed in.
Pour in a dash of olive oil, cover then switch on your grinder. Within a few seconds, you’ll have something that looks like this.
Add some more leaves, another dash of olive oil and grind again. Repeat until you’ve used up all the leaves, using oil to help the process. You may need to use a spoon or knife to push down the last few leaves into the pesto, so they don’t just fly around on top.
Once all the leaves are roughly ground up, add some cheese, sunflower seeds and salt (and probably a bit more oil).
Grind it all up again until everything is incorporated, adding more oil, a dash at a time, if it starts sticking (you’ll hear the motor whirring, trying to turn).
Now taste and decide if you want to add more cheese, seeds, garlic and/or salt, and if so, go ahead.
Your final version can be as rough or smooth as you like – just keep grinding until you reach the consistency you like. Personally I like mine a little grainy.
When you’re happy, transfer the pesto into a clean jar and push it down as best you can to get rid of any air pockets.
Then smooth the top, and pour over a thin layer of oil to cover it. Any surfaces that aren’t covered will start going brown within a couple of days, which still tastes fine but doesn’t look as good. Tightly close the lid once you’re done.
Store the bottle in the fridge for up to 3 weeks, using a few spoonfuls at a time as you need it.
© Alexandra Lawrence and Inspired Nourishment, 2016