Pesto – A Simple Family Meal

pesto on a cutting board
A bowl of pesto sitting on a cutting board surrounded by garlic, almonds, basil, shiso and olive oil.

Usually served around 3 or 4 o’clock, before the busyness of dinner service sets in and when the staff is rotating out from day into night, we do Family Meal at the restaurant. It’s a meal for the staff, cooked by the staff, made up of anything that’s not quite up to par for the customers or end bits that won’t fit into any recipe.

Family is set out at a time when the servers are setting up their tables, polishing glasses, and folding napkins, while the kitchen crew is doing last minute prep to set up their stations. It’s a fun moment when the buzz of the night is about to begin.

I always loved Family Meal for a number of reasons. For one, it yields some of the most delicious meals. Usually, the person in charge of the meal is rotated everyday and they are the “head chef”. Even though they’re in charge, it always seems to become a melding of minds. The “chef” decided he wants to cook up some chicken and garde manger has leftover greens from the day before, so he asks for a salad. Cut over to the pastry chef who has stale bread from last night’s service and she turns them into croutons to toss into the salad.

Cooking for a crowd on a budget

It’s designed to be economical, thrifty and filling for the busy night ahead. You don’t really buy anything specifically for family meal and there’s no recipes. You just get creative with what you have and (most of the time) it comes out fantastic! Some of our best meals came together by looking through the leftover ingredients and coming up with something new.

This has been such a useful tool for me at home. Now, when it seems like we have absolutely nothing for dinner, I can open up the refrigerator and whip up a decent meal pretty quickly. One of these recipes that I’ve come to rely on for using up ingredients is PESTO.

A breakfast plate of eggs with a drizzle of pesto over the top, served with fresh strawberries, toast, orange juice and tea.

I love Pesto!

There is something scrumptious about the fragrant basil combined with the nutty pine nuts and the salty cheese. Add in some dimension with a robust olive oil and you’ve got the perfect sauce for just about anything.

And even better, it is a super simple recipe to execute.

The Greenery

Look into your refrigerator and grab whatever leftover greens you have. This could be anything! Parsley, basil, dill, turnip greens, arugula, spinach, kale, cilantro, carrot tops, scallions, beet greens…. the possibilities are endless.

Greens, pine nuts, cloves of garlic, parmesan cheese, and garlic scapes sitting on the counter.

I like to use basil for at least a quarter of my greens. This helps achieve that distinctive, traditional pesto flavor we all know, but if not, do you! If you don’t have it, you’ll come up with some awesome alternative by playing around and tasting what you’ve got.

You may want to blanch the heartier greens like broccoli stems or kale before buzzing through the machine. That will soften them up nicely. Or for added smokiness, throw your scallions and onion greens on the grill for a few minutes before tossing in.

The Cheese

Greens, pine nuts, cloves of garlic, parmesan cheese, and garlic scapes sitting on the counter.

Pecorino or parmesan is traditional but you can substitute anything that’s aged and hard (insert dirty joke here). Just be sure to grate it up before throwing in the machine to really get a smooth sauce. Aged gouda, gruyere and manchego are all grate options (get it?).

Of course if you’re trying to go vegan you can forgo the cheese all together. Just add some extra nuts to enhance the creaminess of your pesto.

The Nuts

Pine nuts are great but who ever has extra pine nuts lying around the pantry? I know I don’t. On top of being expensive, I usually only buy them for specific recipes and they’re gone within the hour. So, grab whatever you have.

A bowl of pesto on a cutting board with whole garlic cloves, almonds, basil and shiso leaves and a container of olive oil.

Almonds, sunflower seeds, cashews, macadamia nuts, pistachios, walnuts, sesame seeds – these all work fantastically. Make sure to toast them up in the oven before you throw them in to really push the nuttiness. Have a nut allergy? Use sunflower seeds!

Oil and Seasoning

Traditionally we use olive oil but anything you’ve got will do. Go halfsies on olive oil and vegetable oil to tame the robustness of the olive oil. You can even try coconut oil if you’re feeling zesty.

Speaking of zest, you can add some from any of the citrus you have lying around for an added freshness to your pesto. A bit of lemon, lime or orange zest and a squeeze of the juice will brighten anything up.

Also, don’t forget the garlic! I think this should be a staple in your recipe. I had some garlic scapes on hand, so I threw those in as well.

Buzz, Buzz

Shiso, pine nuts, basil, parmesan cheese and garlic scapes sitting in a food processor ready to be whizzed up.

Now that you’ve got your smorgasbord of ingredients together, throw everything but the oil in a food processor and buzz until finely chopped together. With the machine running, slowly pour in your oil to emulsify with the rest of the mixture. You want it to be pretty smooth, so let it go a minute or two until it flows around the bowl with the blade.

Make sure you stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl to incorporate every last bit of those ingredients in your sauce.

Hamilton Beach 12-Cup Stack & Snap Food Processor & Vegetable Chopper, Black (70725A)

Pesto – A Simple Family Meal

Once it’s whizzed up in the machine, the pesto is finished and ready to complete your meal. Place a nice dollop in a bowl, with a beautiful ball of burrata and top with a zesty tomato salad and crunchy sesame croutons for a first course. Use it as a dipping sauce for your grilled steak and potatoes.

Cuisinart DFP-14BCNY 14-Cup Food Processor, Brushed Stainless Steel – Silver
A bowl sitting on a brick patio with a ball of burrata, tomato salad and croutons.

For breakfast, stir the pesto into a soft scrambled egg and serve with a bit of crusty bread and a smear of melty butter. It goes great on fish, chicken, pasta, potatoes, rice…basically brighten anything up from bland to herbalicious. And you’ll save time, money and avoid throwing all those herbs in the compost bin.


A bite of toast with scrambled eggs and pesto with a cup of tea in the background.
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pesto on a cutting board

Use it or Lose it Pesto

  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Total Time: 15 minutes


Use up greens, herbs, nuts, and cheese in this cheap and easy pesto. If you can, make sure to include at least a bit of basil in the greens to get that familiar pesto flavor.


  • 6 oz fresh greens (basil, kale, parsley, beet greens, carrot tops)
  • 3 oz aged hard cheese (parmesan, pecorino)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 garlic cloves or 8 scapes
  • 1/3 cup unsalted nuts, toasted (pine nuts, almonds, walnuts)
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil


  1. Grate cheese.
  2. Combine greens, cheese, salt, garlic and nuts in the bowl of a food processor.
  3. Buzz on high until all ingredients are finely chopped.
  4. With the food processor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil to emulsify with the rest of the ingredients. Make sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl periodically.
  5. Taste and season appropriately.
  • Category: Main Course
  • Cuisine: American, Italian

Keywords: pesto, greens, vegetables, cheese, sauce, pasta

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