The first time I tasted a true basil pesto, I was at a small San Francisco restaurant where an unassuming pasta tossed with a terrifically garlic-imbued pesto absolutely blew me away.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how terrific that dish tasted. That was in 1980, just as pesto took off as a ubiquitous ingredient for myriad recipes — well beyond its traditional hand-pounded simplicity from Liguria, Italy.
In its purest form, pesto Genovese is a simple blend of delicate basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, cheese and olive oil. But American innovation took what was once considered an exotic mixture and embraced its versatility.
Now we make pestos from just about any herb, zipped up in our blenders with any number of aromatic cheeses, rich nuts or seeds, garlic and peppery olive oil.
So who’s to stop us from puréeing up roasted or grilled veggies with basil, sun-dried tomatoes with rosemary, or large bunches of fragrant cilantro with pepitas and chiles — and calling them pesto?
Well, I suppose we’re treading on an authentic Italian specialty, yet the technique of mashing up flavorful ingredients to season grilled meats, top toasted bread or stir into a thick bean soup is not exclusive to one cuisine or part of the world.
There’s pistou from France, chimichurri in Argentina or chile salsas in Mexico, all pounded herbs and flavorful seasonings, blended into pastes that enliven whatever recipe to which they’re added.
Today it’s easy to find Italian pestos in jars and tubs in the refrigerator section, ready and waiting for you to whip up an express supper. But when you’ve got a few minutes, try your hand at buzzing up your own.
I’ve played with roasting, grilling or caramelizing vegetables such as asparagus, artichokes, sweet bell peppers and hot chiles, then blending them with a touch of garlic or onion, different herbs from the garden and a good splash of olive oil. They’re ready to use in seconds and will keep in the refrigerator for several days.
Use them to make a refreshing macaroni salad, spoon into a skillet of sautéed chicken, spread on a grilled pizza or slather on a grilled butterflied chicken.
For this recipe, swap in other herbs if oregano isn’t overflowing in your garden — and no need to drag out the mini chopper for this one; a nice sharp chef’s blade will do.
A pot of fluffy quinoa or thickly sliced and grilled sweet potatoes make a delicious accompaniment to these savory-sweet chicken thighs.
Lisa Golden Schroeder is a food stylist and writer. Find her at foodesigns.com.
Char-Grilled Orange Oregano Chicken Thighs
Note: From Lisa Golden Schroeder.
• 1/2 c. packed fresh oregano leaves
• 2 large garlic cloves
• 4 to 6 (about 24 oz. total) bone-in chicken thighs
• Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
• 1/2 c. orange marmalade
• 1 tbsp. white or traditional balsamic vinegar
Heat the grill until hot. Finely chop the oregano and garlic together into a fine paste, setting 1 tablespoon aside. Season the chicken on the outside and under the skin with salt and pepper, then rub the remaining herb mixture under the skin of the chicken.
Place the chicken on the grill; cook, turning once, for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix the marmalade, reserved herb paste, and vinegar until well blended. Brush onto the chicken a few times, turning it once or twice, for 10 to 15 minutes longer or until the chicken is golden brown and charred (the meat should no longer be pink near the bone and juices run clear; make sure it’s 165 degrees in the interior).
Nutrition information per serving:
Fat 13 g
Sodium 110 mg
Carbohydrates 30 g
Saturated fat 4 g
Added sugars 18 g
Protein 29 g
Cholesterol 90 mg
Dietary fiber 1 g
Exchanges per serving: 2 carb, 4 lean protein, 1 fat.