People: Basil pesto is for summer, when the herb has soaked up the sun and is fragrant as all get out. Oh, and much less expensive. I’ll agree to a winter basil pesto on one condition: proceed IF you preserved last summer’s basil in olive oil.
How many of you did that last September? Right–me neither. In winter, make pesto from kale. Its earthy flavor is perfect this time of year as a topping for bruschetta with ricotta and parmigiano-reggiano (above), as a seasoning for soup, or stirred into pasta (bottom). I first learned about this version from expat author Faith Willinger in the late ’90s. Back then, Tuscan kale, the variety shown below, was a rarity in the U.S., and Faith, who lives in Florence, was promoting Red, White, and Greens, her book on Italian vegetables.
We all know what has happened to kale’s status in the 15 years since I wrote about Faith and her kale pesto. For the uninitiated, Tuscan kale (this basketful is from Maggie’s Farm), is particularly tender and used in the traditional Tuscan soup, ribollita. The green is also known as cavolo nero, or lacinato or dinosaur kale. Also good for this recipe are the young leaves of Siberian or Red Russian kale. What you want is a relatively quick-cooking kale with “melting” properties.
Instead of yet another massaged kale salad, make pesto. Faith’s simple recipe has been a staple for me over the years, with a few tweaks here and there, including the addition of a little heat and smoke.
Tuscan Kale Pesto
1 pound Tuscan or other tender kale
Kosher or sea salt
2 garlic cloves
Red pepper flakes or 1 chipotle chile, softened in water
¼-½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Strip away the tough central ribs of the kale and discard. Cook the kale in generously salted boiling water until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, refresh in cold water, and drain again. Squeeze the kale by the handful to remove all moisture.
With the motor running, drop garlic into a food processor fitted with an S-blade. Add kale, red pepper flakes, olive oil, and salt to taste. Puree to form a smooth stiff paste, adding oil as needed. Scrape mixture into a glass bowl or jar. If using a chipotle chile, bury it in the pesto for 1 to 2 hours to impart a smoky, warm heat.
Serve as a spread with grilled toasts, with or without ricotta cheese, or use as a condiment in vegetable soups. The pesto may also be thinned with pasta cooking water as a pasta sauce. The pesto will keep refrigerated up to 1 week.
Makes about 2 cups.
Adapted from “Red, White and Greens” by Faith Willinger (HarperCollins, 1996)
Click here for a printable version of this recipe.