Recipe: South Texas Asian Pesto
One of the most important things in cooking is learning to let ingredients speak for themselves. Too often, we as cooks take the position of alchemists, laboring under the false belief that we must be transformative, to make things other than what they are, better in some way.
When gifted with beautiful ingredients, the call to simplicity rings even more clearly. When I returned from foraging and harvesting in Tomball, I found myself in possession of a bounty of produce, both farmed and foraged. Deciding what to do with each ingredient was a study in getting the hell out of the way. That was my goal when setting out to prepare a meal from wild Tomball bittercress, and bok choy from Randy Rucker's farm.
The first thought when faced with a mess of greens is to make a simple salad, but that just seemed a bit thoughtless. The second, for me at least, is to make a pesto. Few preparations allow an ingredient to be so fully itself as a pesto. The trick is finding the right ingredients for harmony.
The classic Pesto Genovese, still my favorite version, calls for pine nuts and parmesan because those ingredients suit the heady aroma of basil at its bright peak. That was not the answer here.
Miso was an obvious substitute for parmesan, bringing saltiness and umami-rich glutamates (apologies to Jason Kerr) to the dish, a nod to the Asian inclinations of bok choy. Garlic remains a constant, and forms one leg of the Asian flavor trifecta of garlic, scallion and ginger.
If you think you know where I'm headed next, you're right. Scallion and ginger. The brightness of ginger helped to cut the bitterness of the cress just a bit, without masking it. Scallion, just because it seemed appropriate. I believe that nuts are mandatory in pesto, in some form, and just a hint of toasted sesame oil seemed to fit with what was quickly turning into an East meets West take on the Italian classic. Call me Ming Tsai. (Don't really. That guy's a tool.)
Once I had a plan worked out, it was a simple matter of adding everything to the blender (apologies to Geri Maria Harris for ditching the mortar and pestle), and blending everything into harmony. The results were exactly what I'd hoped for. The fresh green taste of the bok choy came out in abundance, balanced by the savory underpinnings of miso, the bite of garlic and ginger, and an undeniable undercurrent of bitterness courtesy of bittercress. It was bright, lively, and very much of the moment and the ingredients at hand. If you're going to go the trouble of digging things out of the soil, and scrounging them out of the woods, it's best to let them be what they are.
South Texas Asian Pesto
- 1 large head bok choy, greens only, roughly chopped
- 1 large handful bittercress, roughly chopped (substitute arugula or watercress if you're not down with foraging)
- 3-4 Tbs white miso paste
- 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped (I'd actually cut this by at least a clove in the future)
- 3 scallions, sliced
- 1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- 2 tsp toasted sesame oil
- Water as needed (puree may be too thick; this is just to thin it a bit)
Add all ingredients to blender, food processor, or mortar and pestle and blend to desired consistency. Use to top pasta, fish, vegetables, or anything else that suits your fancy. This would actually be a cool stand-in for chimichurri atop grilled steak.