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Pesto change-o

Experiment with different ingredients to transform pesto into a versatile sauce or spread for just about anything.

Here's your chance to play fast and loose with the rules.

Make a pesto from something other than basil.

When fresh basil is out of season or difficult to find or you just want something different, experiment with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms or olives to create a colorful, savory sauce for pasta and beyond.

Traditional pesto calls for pounding garlic with a mortar and pestle while gradually mixing in basil, pine nuts and cheese. Olive oil is then added in a thin stream.

Modern appliances and trendy ingredients have transformed this traditional Italian condiment. Today, we dump the ingredients in a food processor, press a button, and a savory sauce results in seconds.

The term pesto no longer refers only to the hand-pounded basil and garlic sauce but to practically any mixture of ingredients in an oil base.

Easy to assemble from any number of your favorite ingredients, pesto can add flavor and color to a variety of dishes.

A favorite ingredient for winter pestos is sun-dried tomatoes. Good, fresh tomatoes are scarce to non-existent in winter, and sun-dried ones make a flavorful substitute. Combine them with ingredients such as olives that contrast with their sweetness.

Both black and green olives add pungency to winter pestos. Sun-Dried Tomato and Black Olive Pesto pairs the tomatoes with salty black olives.

Green Olive and Walnut Pesto is a salty mixture that goes a long way with pasta or toasted pita bread.

For a pesto base, consider coriander, cilantro, parsley, spinach or arugula, or unexpected choices such as capers, asparagus or mushrooms.

Caper, Raisin and Lemon Pesto combines contrasting flavors in a sweet-salty-sour sauce that complements grilled chicken or fish.

Try pairing coriander with olive oil, lime juice, walnuts and parmesan cheese as a sauce to serve with grilled chicken breasts.

Experiment with a variety of flavor combinations, using ingredients such as sunflower or pumpkin seeds, jalapeno peppers, scallions and lemon or lime juice.

Pecans and almonds make economical substitutes for pine nuts in pesto recipes. Or toss in pistachios or cashews. Walnuts can be used as well but sometimes have bitter skins that overpower other flavors.

Although pesto is traditionally served with pasta, choosing a partner for it is another area where anything goes.

Jazz up green beans with a pecan pesto made with parsley, parmesan cheese, lemon juice and olive oil.

For a savory appetizer, spread pesto on crostini. Meaning "little toasts" in Italian, crostini are small, thin slices of toasted bread, usually brushed with olive oil.

Spread pesto on a sandwich, use it as a pizza topping or serve it as a condiment with roasted or sauteed vegetables or grilled chicken. Mix it into mayonnaise or sour cream to create a sandwich spread or dip for vegetables.

If there was ever a recipe that begs for tinkering, it's pesto. Even if you're the type of cook who follows a recipe as if it is written in stone, allow yourself to live a little. Experiment with these recipes, and then come up with your own.

Green Olive and Walnut Pesto

{ cup walnut (or pecan) pieces

1 cup pitted green olives (if stuffed, remove pimentos)

{ cup parsley, tough stems removed

6 scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste

\ teaspoon crushed hot red pepper flakes

\ cup olive oil

{ cup parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spread the walnuts in a shallow baking dish. Toast in the oven, shaking once or twice, until the nuts are lightly browned and fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate and let cool.

In a food processor, combine the olives, toasted walnuts, parsley, scallions, lemon juice and pepper flakes. Pulse, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally, until the mixture is finely chopped.

With the machine on, slowly pour the olive oil through the feed tube until incorporated.

Toss in parmesan cheese and pulse a few times.

Serve the pesto at room temperature with pasta, crostini, bread sticks or crackers.

Makes six servings. Per serving: 207 calories, 6 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm total fat (3 gm saturated fat), 5 mg cholesterol, 2 gm fiber, 716 mg sodium.

Spinach and Ricotta Pesto

2 tablespoons walnuts

{ pound spinach, washed and trimmed

1 small clove garlic, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

{ cup ricotta cheese

\ cup grated parmesan cheese

salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Place the walnuts, spinach and garlic in the work bowl of a food processor. Process until finely chopped, scraping sides of bowl as necessary.

With motor running, pour in olive oil until a smooth paste forms.

Scrape the mixture into a medium bowl and stir in the ricotta, parmesan and salt and pepper.

Makes four servings. Per serving: 143 calories, 7 gm protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm total fat (3 gm saturated fat), 8 mg cholesterol, 2 gm fiber, 161 mg sodium.

Source: "Cool Kitchen" (William Morrow, $22 hardcover, 1998).

Mushroom Pesto

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

10-ounce package fresh white mushrooms, chopped fine (preferably in a food processor)

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon medium-dry sherry, optional

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 garlic clove, minced and mashed to a paste with \ teaspoon salt

\ cup pine nuts

\ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

{ cup packed fresh parsley leaves, washed well and spun dry

In a 10- to 12-inch non-stick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and saute mushrooms with Worcestershire sauce, sherry, and salt and pepper, to taste, stirring, until the liquid from the mushrooms evaporates and mushrooms begin to brown, about 10 minutes.

In a food processor, puree mushroom mixture with garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan and remaining 3 tablespoons oil.

Add parsley and blend until parsley is chopped fine. Pesto keeps, covered with plastic wrap and chilled, one week.

Makes eight servings. Per serving: 111 calories, 3 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 10 gm total fat (2 gm saturated fat), 2 mg cholesterol, 1 gm fiber, 141 mg sodium.


Asparagus Pesto

1 pound asparagus

\ cup pine nuts

2 or 3 medium garlic cloves

{ teaspoon salt

{ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-reggiano cheese (about cup)

Have a bowl of ice water ready. Trim woody ends from asparagus. Cut asparagus stalks crosswise into 2-inch pieces, reserving tips.

In a steamer set over boiling water, steam the asparagus stalks, covered, 4 minutes. Add reserved asparagus tips and steam, covered, until just tender, about 1 minute.

Immediately transfer asparagus to ice water to stop cooking. Drain asparagus well in a colander and pat dry.

In a food processor, pulse pine nuts and garlic with salt until finely chopped. Add asparagus and oil and pulse until asparagus is coarsely chopped.

Transfer pesto to a large bowl and stir in Parmigiano-reggiano.

Makes six servings. Per serving: 255 calories, 8 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 25 gm total fat (5 gm saturated fat), 7 mg cholesterol, 1 gm fiber, 380 mg sodium.


Red Pepper Pesto

3 ounces sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed)

1 cups sweet red peppers, roasted and chopped (may use store-bought roasted peppers)

{ cup Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped

cup parsley, chopped, or cup parsley and cup spinach

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste

Put the sun-dried tomatoes into a bowl and pour boiling water over them just to cover. Leave them to soak for 20-30 minutes.

If using canned peppers, rinse and drain them well, blot them on paper towels, then chop them finely. Combine peppers with olives, parsley and garlic.

Drain the sun-dried tomatoes, reserving the water, and press them gently in a colander. Pulse them in a food processor until they are finely chopped. (Don't use the food processor for the other ingredients, as it can too easily turn them into mush, and you want to keep a little texture in this spread.)

Add the olive oil and vinegar to the tomatoes in the food processor. Pulse again, scraping down as needed, until no large chunks of tomato are left.

Combine the tomato mixture with the other ingredients, mix well and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Note: If the pesto is too thick, moisten it with a few drops of the reserved tomato water until it has the desired consistency. The texture should be somewhere between thick pesto and soft pate.

Makes two servings. Per serving: 459 calories, 5 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 43 gm total fat (6 gm saturated fat), 0 cholesterol, 7 gm fiber, 1,278 mg sodium.

Source: "The New Vegetarian Epicure" (Knopf, $19 paperback, 1996).

Sun-Dried Tomato and Black Olive Pesto

15 sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil (about cup), drained

8 Kalamata olives or other large black olives, pitted

1 clove garlic, peeled

3 tablespoons whole fresh parsley leaves

\ cup extra-virgin olive oil

{ teaspoon salt, or to taste

Place the sun-dried tomatoes, olives, garlic and parsley in a food processor. Process, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until the ingredients are coarsely chopped.

With the machine running, pour the oil through the feeder tube in a thin stream. Process until the ingredients form a slightly coarse paste.

Scrape the pesto into a small bowl. Add the salt. If the olives are salty, you may need very little salt. Pesto will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Makes four servings. Per serving: 170 calories, 1 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, 17 gm total fat (2 gm saturated fat), 0 cholesterol, 0 fiber, 417 mg sodium.

Source: "Cool Kitchen" (William Morrow, $22 hardcover, 1998).

Caper, Raisin and Lemon Pesto

\ cup salted capers

1 lemon

\ cup packed fresh flat-leafed parsley leaves

2 tablespoons golden raisins

1 tablespoon chopped shallot

1 tablespoon water

\ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Rinse capers well and soak 30 minutes in cold water to cover by 3 inches (to remove excess salt). Drain capers well.

With a vegetable peeler, remove six 2{- by {-inch strips of zest from lemon and finely chop.

Halve lemon and squeeze enough juice to measure 4 teaspoons, or to taste.

In a food processor, combine capers, zest, juice, parsley raisins, shallot, 1 tablespoon water and pepper. With motor running, add oil in a stream and puree until smooth.

Season pesto with salt if necessary. Pesto keeps, covered and chilled, one day. Serve with chicken or fish.

Makes four servings. Per serving: 110 calories, 1 gm protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 10 gm total fat (1 gm saturated fat), 0 cholesterol, 0 fiber, 319 mg sodium.