Make This Tonight: Seaweed Pesto

Chef Camille Becerra of New York City's pastel-tinted Café Henrie tells us why it's better to break all the rules when it comes to making pesto. If you thought you had to keep the recipe classically Italian, prepare to taste her Asian-inspired seaweed version, and never look back.

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When graffiti artist and nightlife personality André Saraiva asked chef Camille Becerra to do a residency in the kitchen of his Lower East Side restaurant, Café Henrie, the commitment was initially just for a three-month stint; but Becerra's success with their menu has resulted in an indefinite stay. You would be hard-pressed to guess that her health-minded (and highly Instagrammed) dishes come out of a cafe that doesn't even have a proper kitchen, but somehow she achieves it—and having just undertaken a dinner menu, she's showing no signs of stopping.

You can't miss this neon sign on New York City's Forsyth Street. Photo by David Cortes.
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One of the dishes on that new menu—avocado toast with seaweed pesto and sesame-charcoal butter—caught our attention and, surprisingly, not because of the charcoal butter, but the pesto. And if you don't have to stick to the classic recipe of basil, salty cheese, pine nuts, garlic, and extra-virgin olive oil, you take this Genoan speciality in all sorts of fascinating (and delicious!) directions.

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Here, chef Becerra explains how to see pesto as more of a formula, not a rigid recipe.

Hold the Basil, Please

Chef Camille Becerra in her element. Photo by David Cortes.

"Traditionally, a pesto is made with basil, but I think more and more we're becoming experimental and understanding that anything can be used," says Becerra. She loves making the sauce with other herbs, including parsley, cilantro, and even the fronds at the top of fennel.

Add More Greens

Don't be scared to mix-and-match herbs. Here, Becerra uses parsley and fennel fronds. Photo by David Cortes.
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"Dark lettuces like kale, collards, or something like mustard greens are great to add, too," she continues. While the use of parsley or cilantro keeps the herbaceous sauce familiar, additional greens add a new, heartier depth of flavor.

Experiment with Different Nuts

Pumpkin seeds are a staple at Café Henrie. Photo by David Cortes.

If you're whipping up an impromptu pesto, the chances of having pine nuts in your pantry are slim—but, really, any nuts can work. Almonds or walnuts are great substitutes, but Becerra recommends playing around with different seeds in your recipe. "So many people have nut allergies, so you can even make it with pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds."

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You Can Even Skip the Olive Oil

The rice wine vinegar works perfectly with the nori in Becerra's recipe. Photo by David Cortes.
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"I generally like to use more neutral oils, because I think sometimes olive oils are a bit bitter," explains Becerra. "When I'm making sauces, using safflower, grapeseed, or canola is nice." While there's nothing wrong with a nice, robustly flavored olive oil, choosing a flavorless option will ensure that it isn't competing with the other tastes going on in the recipe. (You'll see why neutral is better in Becerra's recipe, which let's the seaweed flavor be the star of the show.)

So You Made Pesto, Now What?

The final product, before being used for so many meals throughout the week. Photo by David Cortes.

Once you've made your own pesto following this formula, you're probably wondering what you can do with it. Naturally, our inclination is to use it as a sauce for pasta—but you can take it so much further. (If you're making Becerra's Asian-flavored take on pesto, consider using an earthier, buckwheat soba noodle to complement the sauce.)

Slathering on toast is one of the easiest ways to enjoy pesto. Photo by David Cortes.
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Becerra recommends adding a smear of pesto in lieu of mayonnaise or mustard in a sandwich; topping any grain or rice bowls with a dollop of it; and treating an herby pesto as a sauce for just about any protein—a nice piece of seared steak, roasted chicken, or poached fish, perhaps?

So, you've got the formula down, but still need some pesto training wheels? Becerra offers the recipe for her seaweed pesto to get you started.

Use seaweed pesto to spice up your daily avocado toast. Photo by David Cortes.

Seaweed Pesto

Makes About 2 Cups


5 sheets of dried nori

½ cup pumpkin seeds

½ cup neutral oil like canola, grapeseed, or safflower

2 cups of chopped parsley, or mixed herbs like cilantro and fennel fronds

¼ cup rice wine vinegar

Sea salt

How to Make It

Becerra tearing the nori before blitzing. Photo by David Cortes.
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Start by tearing the sheets of nori using your hand and adding the pieces into your food processor.

If you don't have pumpkin seeds, try sunflower seeds! Photo by David Cortes.
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Add the oil and pumpkin seeds to the food processor. Process until the blend has the consistency of slurry.

You can never have too many herbs. Photo by David Cortes.

Add the herbs once you have your oil slurry (adding the herbs at this point helps prevent them from oxidizing and browning). Continue to pulse the mixture until incorporated, scraping down the sides as necessary.

A final sprinkling of sea salt for good measure. Photo by David Cortes.

Pour in the rice wine vinegar and blend one last time. Taste the sauce and season with salt as necessary.

Why doesn't our avocado toast ever look this pretty? Photo by David Cortes.
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