Spinach-Basil Pesto

Let’s face it. Most children do not arrive in this world universally loving their veggies. Getting there can be a slow process. And for some kids (and some veggies), the process is longer than for others.

With all its natural sugar it’s not hard to warm up to the carrot. Corn, too, is an easy sell. But on the other side of the spectrum lurk broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach. Dark green vegetables contain higher amounts of certain natural compounds which many kids just don’t care for.  The bitter taste in cruciferous veggies like broccoli and kale come from what are know as glucosinolate compounds, and raw spinach contains carotenoids to which many people — although at times it seems those people fall disproportionately in the 0- to 10-year-old age group — react strongly. Indeed, scientists have identified genes that predispose certain individuals to be “supertasters” with highly-refined palates that distinguish and amplify certain flavors. (If you’re interested in learning more about this phenomena, read People Who Taste To Much by Sumathi Reddy, published in the Wall Street Journal in March, 2013.)

Supertaster or not, your child may occasionally approach their leafy greens with more aggression than anticipation. Why not harness that energy with a little invitation to, quite literally, pound their vegetables.

Enter pesto. Even its name is a derivative of the Genovese word “to crush,” referencing the method in which pesto is prepared. The Ligurians in Italy took an ancient Roman preparation of crushed herbs, cheese and garlic and adapted it using more regionally-available ingredients including basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino cheese. Pesto alla genovese, as this classic preparation is known, serves as the traditional basis on which more modern pesto interpretations are based.

A bowl of pesto perfection

A bowl of pesto perfection

I’m a fan of the traditional but recently made a slightly more modern pesto with our Stout Sprouts in an effort to introduce a bit more veg into our diet. All the traditional flavors are here: basil, garlic, pine nuts and parmigiano-reggiano, but we also added several handfuls of baby spinach and some lemon zest.

These additions do several things: first, the spinach — though sometimes eschewed by the younger set because of those bitter carotenoids — mellows out the pesto and acts as an earthy counterpoint to the strong basil taste. It also helps keep the finished pesto a vibrant green (basil alone can oxidize quickly). The lemon zest brings a brightness to the pesto that plays well with the herb and garlic base. We also took a light hand when adding the garlic which was appreciated by the developing palates in our house. Blended — or pounded, if you will — with several glugs of a good extra-virgin olive oil and this pesto is pretty darn close to perfect. Not to strong, but still ultra-flavorful. And did I mention quick? It takes all of 10 minutes to make…just enough time to boil a pot of pasta, and dinner is ready.

Making the pesto: getting in on the action

Making the pesto: getting in on the action

This is another vegetarian recipe with lots of kid-friendly steps. Your Sprouts can help with everything from washing and drying the basil and spinach to crushing the garlic in a garlic press to grating the cheese to zesting the lemon. And you can encourage them to get out their veggie aggressions by either pounding ingredients in a mortar and pestle or blending them in a blender or food processor with your supervision. We used our blender, and it rewarded us with an ultra-smooth pesto.

Yes, pesto is green. But if your kids help you make this, chances are they will at least give it a try. And if they try it, there is a good chance they will like it. Our Sprouts did, without a single complaint about any bitterness. In my book, that qualifies them as supertasters. Bring on the capes and super hero handshakes.

Spinach-basil pesto over spinach pasta with pine nuts and grated Parmesan

Spinach-basil pesto over spinach pasta with pine nuts and grated Parmesan

Spinach-Basil Pesto

1/2 cup pine nuts
2 small-to-medium garlic cloves
2 cups loosely-packed baby spinach leaves
1 cup loosely-packed basil leaves
Between 1/4 and 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt, or to taste

Begin by lightly toasting the pine nuts in a skillet over medium-high heat on the stove top, shaking the skillet frequently to avoid burning the pine nuts. Remove from the heat when the pine nuts begin to brown and allow them to cool.

Toasting the pine nuts

Toasting the pine nuts

In a blender (or the small bowl of a food processor, or in a sturdy mortar and pestle), combine the pine nuts and garlic and puree or mash. Add the spinach leaves and basil and about 1/4 cup olive oil and continue to process until smooth. Add the cheese and lemon zest and continue to process, adding more olive oil as necessary to make sure the pesto is creamy and the blender or food processor is running smoothly. Turn off the blender or food processor and taste, adding salt as needed (which will vary depending on the saltiness of your Parmesan).

This pesto can be stored for up to a week in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

It is delicious on pasta — the Sprouts had theirs on spinach linguine one evening — but it can also be used as a sandwich spread or added to a vegetable soup to boost the flavor. I’ve even made a Crudité dip by mixing a tablespoon or two into a cup of sour cream or plain yogurt and serving it with cut vegetables. Very versatile.

Makes: about a cup of pesto, enough to top at least a pound of pasta (figure on a tablespoon or two of pesto per serving of pasta).

This dinner's a winner: pesto and pasta

This dinner’s a winner: pesto and pasta

Kid rating: four stars. Daughter 2 raved about this pesto. I was somewhat surprised by her enthusiasm considering her known avoidance of basil as a garnish and general apathy when it comes to spinach (it is not her favorite vegetable). But she finished an entire portion of pasta with pesto sauce, and I consider that a win. When used as a dressing in an antipasti salad both of our girls loved this pesto. Great way to introduce tastes without a standoff at the table.
Parent rating: four and a half stars. That is a bit of a balance between my husband, who prefers a red sauce to pesto for his pasta, and myself, who adores pesto (I freeze individual tablespoons of it to use on single portions of pasta throughout the next several months). This particular version is really, really good and brings some extra niacin, zinc, vitamins A, C, E, K, B6, folate, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, iron, magnesium and other trace minerals to the dinner plate (spinach is good that way). Give this pesto a try — I promise that nobody at your table will be bitter about it at all.

2 thoughts on “Spinach-Basil Pesto

  1. Pingback: Toasted Antipasti Sandwich: Bring On The Picnic | The Stout Sprout

  2. Pingback: Super Simple Vegetable Soup | The Stout Sprout

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