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Pesto wasn't always made with basil, which is the way most of us think of it. In the colder seasons Spinach is a great substitution. Photo by Andreas Andersson from FreeImages
Pesto wasn't always made with basil, which is the way most of us think of it. In the colder seasons Spinach is a great substitution. Photo by Andreas Andersson from FreeImages

Pesto for Every Season

Oct 30, 2019

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My significant other, Jim and I are both farmers' market managers here in Sonoma County. Sometimes we get competitive on our knowledge of food and sometimes we share tidbits of our food habits or recipes that originate from our childhoods. We both spent our teen years in Marin County but come from very different backgrounds. We both will be hitting our half century mark early next year; so we are from the same era of time. It's fun for us to compare our family food histories. 

A few Sundays ago the topic of pesto came up. Neither one of us could recall hearing, seeing or tasting it until the late 80's to early 90's. I had my theories why I had never heard of it until that time. I grew up in a family that rarely used fresh vegetables in meals. My other half's family often used fresh vegetables and even grew their own;  why had he never heard of pesto until his late teens/early twenties? Of course, I had to research it and find the origin of pesto. 

Pesto wasn't always made with basil, which is the way most of us think of it. The word pesto comes from the Genoese verb pestâ (Italian pestare), which means to crush or to pound. According to tradition the ingredients were to be crushed by a mortar and pestle. 

According to my research there may have been two potential predecessors to pesto in ancient times. Going as far back as the Roman age, they used to eat a paste called moretum. This past was made by crushing garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar together. The past was used in Roman cuisine and is mentioned in the Appendix Vergiliana which is an ancient collection of poems. During the middle ages a popular sauce in Genoan cuisines was agliata, a paste made of mashed garlic and walnuts. the introduction of basil occurred in more recent times around the mid 19th century. It was a staple in Linguria, a Provence in Italy during this time. This delectable paste was illusive to the United States until the late 80's. There isn't much more information about why it was remained out our diets prior to this time. I did find a 1989 article from the Chicago Tribune from 1989 talking about the discovery of pesto but was called green sauce. 

In my research it dawned on me that I always thought pesto had to be made with basil which at this time of year is no longer available at the farmers' markets. A great substitution is spinach. Spinach grows well in the cooler months. It prefers temperatures between 45 and 75 degrees to grow well. We will start seeing more spinach around the market place as we get closer to winter making a perfect time to try a new version of pesto. 

Spinach Oregano Pesto

Try a new version of pesto with spinach as the main herb. Photo by val lyashov from FreeImagesIngredients

• 1/3 cup Olive Oil 

• 1 1/2 cup firmly packed spinach leaves, coarsely chopped

• 1/2 cup fresh oregano leaves

• 1/2 cup walnuts

• 2 cloves garlic, peeled 

• 1/4 teaspoon salt 

• 3/4 cup grated Asiago cheese

• Olive Oil 

Directions

In a food processor combine the 1/3 cup olive oil, spinach, oregano, walnuts, garlic, and salt. 

Cover and process until nearly smooth, stopping and scraping sides as necessary. 

Stir in cheese. Add enough additional olive oil (about 2 tablespoons) to reach desired consistency.

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