Fresh, vibrant, tangy, zesty, spicy and garlicky are only some of the adjectives used to describe wildcrafted pesto. But how about spell-binding? From dandelion, garlic mustard, sorrel, and lemon balm, these “weeds” and herbs not only have a long magical history, they can be transformed into tasty and nutritious sauces, dips and condiments—and served with practically anything!
A celebrated tradition of Mediterranean cuisine from whence it originates, pesto gets its name from the word pestle, as in mortar and pestle, the traditional tool used to make pesto. (Also indispensable to every kitchen witch I know). But don’t worry, in this recipe we’ll utilize my favorite kitchen tool – the modern food processor – to make the process less labor intensive. Okay it might be more noisy but that’s no reason not to work in some meditative magical intention as you go.
Plant folklore claims that dandelions promote inner and outer transformation, mustard garlic “revives the spirits” and “expels heaviness”, fennel protects you from evil and lemon balm will bring a lover into your life. So create a magical pesto – why not?
Pesto can be eaten as a dip with crackers or a baguette, dolloped on pasta as a sauce, a condiment served atop fish and meat dishes, as a dressing for salads and vegetables, even in soups (pistou). Aside from amazing flavor, I especially love wild pesto because they are such an easy way to add nutrient packed fresh greens into our diet.
Brimming with essential minerals, vitamins, anti-oxidants and Omega 3’s, many have long been used as medicinal herbs. And pesto needs no cooking at all, which means none of their essential nutrients are lost – and they are perfect for the lighter fresher meals of spring and summer.
Anyway, pesto was traditionally made with basil, roasted pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano, extra virgin oil and a pinch of sea salt. But these wildcrafted versions of pesto use local greens that grow in abundance on Vancouver Island. Many will be found in your lawn or garden beds, or in suburban back alleys.
And when comes to nuts feel free to experiment with sunflower, pumpkin, almonds, walnut, and hazelnuts. All will add their own distinct flavor profile. For the cheese, well there are many local choices, Salt Spring Island Cheese makes a lovely chèvre, soft, fresh goat cheese, with a nice sharp flavor. And Natural Pastures Cheese Company makes a parmesan style cheese with a deep rich nutty flavor called Parmadammer.
Here are some suggestions for some magical pesto flavor combinations (some of which we’ll be serving up in a “pesto bar” for our April 12th Urban Wild Food Walk and Tasting in Vic West). Of course each plant can be a starring ingredient by itself – just google whatever plant you’ve got with the word pesto – and recipes will pop up.
Old-Fashioned Dandelion Pesto
Golden flowers and jagged lion toothed leaves identify the prolific dandelion. Long reputed to enhance second sight, these bitter greens are surprisingly delicious and mellow as a pesto. Our version goes classic, with traditional toasted pine nuts and Parmigiano Regganio. (see full recipe here) My favorite way to serve is as a delicious dip with crackers or swirled into pasta. Always a big hit with family, friends and company.
Stinging Nettle Pesto
Tall and graceful, the nettle packs a powerful sting so be careful when handling! But if you’re looking for protection or to break a curse, well this is the plant/pesto for you. Local First Nations are reputed to have (secret) magical nettle traditions too. My herbalist teacher Betty Norton taught me the delicious advantages of keeping this pesto simple. Not too much garlic, lots of olive oil, throw in a little grated parmesan after it’s whirred. In our class we enjoyed it straight up on crackers.
Wood Sorrel & Fennel Pesto
Wood Sorrel is tart, bright and lemony. This native perennial is often used as an ornamental ground cover and its three lobed shamrock style leaf (with downy purplish undersides) is easy to identify. It is often used in spells to promote family togetherness and affection. (Note: wood sorrel contains a high amount of oxalate, which means you don’t want to eat tons, but this pesto eaten occasionally is just fine.)
The lacy fronds of the fennel leaves are heady with liquorice flavor. Imparting courage and strength, it helps drive away evil spirits. Long a favorite culinary herb used in aperitifs, it has gone feral and grows in profusion on the bluffs of Cattle Point and Beacon Hill, and neighborhood lanes everywhere.
The sorrel is tangy and lemony, and the aromatic fennel imparts a rich anise depth. I used sunflowers seeds for a buttery crunch. This pesto is wonderful served alone with with a baguette, or tossed on boiled new potatoes, even drizzled over grilled lamb chops. Nice for vegetable dishes and soup flavoring too!
Lemon Balm & Bittercress Pesto
Lemon Balm, is in the same family as mint, gentle and lemony, and is said to be calming herb. Magically it is said to be especially helpful in soothing emotional pains after a relationship ends. Also brought here by early settlers, Lemon Balm has escaped cultivation and spread into the wild.
Bittercress is another common weed found nearly everywhere. And its magical history as one of the “Nine Herb Charms” to invoke the divine and create healing in Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon culture is well-known. Its small round leaves add a spicy bite similar to arugula and watercress. Young seed pods and delicate tiny white flowers give a radish like jolt.
I used walnuts for fuller flavor and added a mild goat cheese. This aromatic pesto is wonderful on pasta and sautéed vegetables.
General Pesto Tips
- Use the smallest leaves near the top of the plant—these will be tender.
- Wiping (rather than washing) the leaves activates the herbs fragrant oils without dampening its flavour and texture. That said, I do recommend washing the leaves before drying them thoroughly in a salad spinner.
- Toasting the nuts gives a richer nutty flavor but raw is just fine too. Toast them in a 350°F oven for a few minutes.
- Pouring a layer of olive oil over the pesto will seal it from oxygen and inhibit browning and spoilage. Replenish this layer of oil as you use the pesto.
- Although homemade pesto sauce is most flavorful and fragrant at room temperature (traditionally stored in a cool dark cabinet) I recommend storing it in the refrigerator, where it should keep for a week.
- Pesto can be frozen for up to six months. Just thaw 30-34 minutes on a counter-top to soften, scoop out what you need, and re-freeze. One common trick is to pour sauce into ice-cube trays, then store the frozen cubes in a zip-lock freezer bag. You can toss frozen right into sauces or cooked pasta.
Wild Green Pesto
Makes one approx. one cup
- 3 cups of wild greens
- 1/2 cup of extra virgin oil (avocado oil also works nicely, but less flavor)
- 2-3 cloves of garlic
- 1/4 cup of roasted (or raw) nuts or seeds. (again choice is up to you)
- 1/4 cup grated or softened cheese
- Place greens in the bowl of your food processor.
- Whiz until the mixture is well chopped.
- Add nuts/seeds and process again until finely chopped.
- With the motor running, slowly pour the oil through the feed tube.
- Then add cheese (you can also add cheese later after processing if you want a chunkier pesto, but be sure cheese is well grated)
- Season the pesto with sea salt and pepper, to taste.
(Note: Many of these pictures are not mine. There were so many wonderful recipes online that I decided to use the photos as links. So click away for more wonderful pesto ideas!)