by Maria Reidelbach
Who doesn’t love pesto? The traditional Ligurian recipe, made with pine nuts, garlic and Romano or Parmesan cheese and served on pasta is insanely delicious—and even kids like it. It turns out that there are great nutritional benefits from eating pesto, too.
Recent studies have shown that fresh herbs and bitter greens have many, many, many times the phytonutrients of other vegetables and greens. Phyto
nutrients? Yes, “phyto” is Greek for plant and nutrients…well you get it. Each plant produces several thousand of these nutrients, which are chemicals, to help defend themselves against germs, fungi, bugs, and other menaces. These nutrients, while not essential for our survival, do have great benefits for our health as well—the antioxidants give us protection against internal inflammation, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and even visible signs of aging. Some studies show that phytonutrients can enhance athletic performance, lower blood pressure, fight the flu, improve moods, and boost immunity. It’s a very hot area of study now because of the great potential for even greater health.
The wild plants that comprised the diet of our ancestors were small, chewy and bitter compared to the cultivated plants we eat today. Ten thousand years of agriculture has been dedicated to making fruit and vegetables bigger, sweeter, softer, juicier and blander than their origins. We like big, sweet and juicy! But the problem is that the phytonutrients, which tend to be strongly flavored—bitter, hot or sour—have been been almost completely bred out. For example, dandelions have 40 times the phytonutrients of iceberg lettuce, and even compared to spinach, dandelion greens have eight times the antioxidants, two times the calcium, three times the vitamin A, five times the vitamins K and E, and many more phytonutrients still being studied. Other wild greens have similarly stellar nutritional profiles. Luckily, there are some cultivated plants that have retained their ancestral nutrients—the herbs and bitter greens. Nibbling an herb leaf, you are overcome with the strong flavors and aromas that are missing from supermarket fruit and veg—the hallmarks of phytonutrient bounty. The flavors are too intense flying solo, but when you use herbs and bitter greens to flavor grains and vegetables a delicious alchemy happens and the flavor and aroma soars.
I’ve come to think of herbs as real food, not just seasoning, and I’ve been using them more in my cooking. One of the best ways to eat lots of fresh herbs—and wild greens, too—is that old favorite, pesto. Basil pesto is traditional, but there are pestos made with many other herbs that are absolutely great.
But here’s another twist—more studies are showing that it’s those refined carbs like the ones found in pasta, white bread and white rice that are major culprits in our struggle with extra weight. It’s looking like refined carbs produce the most insulin, which puts fat cells into overdrive. Since the 1970s it’s been thought that eating fat made us fat, and so in processed food fat was replaced with refined carbs—sugar and white flour. Then that made us fat! The scientists studying this say that if we replace refined carbs with whole grains, we’ll be much healthier. I’m thinking that this might not be the last word, but it’s pretty obvious that whole grains have a much wider range of nutrition—and flavor. Since switching to a mostly whole-grain diet I’ve dropped a stubborn ten pounds that stuck with me since I quit smoking cigarettes 15 years ago.
And, if you’ll indulge me in one more twisteroo, I just read an article in the New York Times by the fabulous Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant. To care for their soil, farmers practice crop rotation. This means changing the crops grown in a field each year because plants both deplete and create different nutrients in the soil. Barber points out that to help the farms be financially sustainable, we need to eat a bigger variety of the crops that add nutrients back into the soil–things like buckwheat, barley, and millet. Luckily, these once popular grains are extravagantly delicious—how could we ever have forgotten how good they are? And they are just the thing the nutritionists are saying will end the obesity epidemic.
It’s a win-win-win: super yummy nutritious greens, amazing, forgotten, fat-busting grains, and support for local farms, right on our dinner plates!
Pesto is fantastic on cooked whole grains (cook them just like rice), spread on whole-grain bruschetta, mixed with beans, swirled into soup, used as a sauce on grilled or roasted fish, poultry or meat, or mixed into salad dressing. The possibilities are endless!
Basic Pesto Recipe
• 2 cups of herbs or wild greens
• 1/2 clove garlic or ½ cup chives, or 2 scallions—more to taste
• 1/2 cup of olive oil
• salt to taste
• water, juice or vinegar (optional)
• 1/2 cup grated parm (optional)
• 2 tablespoons of nuts (optional)
Chop the herbs or greens into pieces smaller than 1 inch.
Put all the ingredients in a food processor, blender or a bowl for a stick blender and blend until almost liquified, scraping the bowl as necessary. If it is too thick, add a little water, fruit juice, wine or vinegar. That’s all there is to it!
Store pesto in the fridge in a closed container with a slick of olive oil covering the surface for a week or so, or you can freeze it (before adding cheese).
Here are a few of the great combos I’ve tried (all use olive oil):
• Parsley + garlic chives + walnuts on farro (a delicious whole grain related to wheat)
• Tuscan (aka dino or blue) kale, blanched + garlic with white beans
• Wild garlic mustard + parsley + canned tuna on a whole grain sandwich
• Tarragon + parsley + chives + almonds on steamed asparagus
• Cilantro + scallions + lemon or orange juice on red or black beans
• Marjoram + garlic + capers + red wine vinegar on shrimp or fish
• Lovage + chives + pistachios on green beans and boiled new potatoes
• Wild ramp leaves + parm on chicken or game
• Rosemary + sage + pecans swirled into bean soup
• Arugula + garlic + hazelnuts on millet
It’s really fun and fairly fool-proof to experiment—I haven’t created one dud. If you have an extra-strong herb like rosemary or oregano, cut it with something milder like lamb’s quarters, chickweed or parsley. There are plenty of other herbs and greens to try: dill, nettles (they don’t sting when pulverized), watercress, lemon verbena, borage and more.