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.
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.
Here, chef Becerra explains how to see pesto as more of a formula, not a rigid recipe.
Hold the Basil, Please
"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
"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
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."
You Can Even Skip the Olive Oil
"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?
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.)
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.
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
How to Make It
Start by tearing the sheets of nori using your hand and adding the pieces into your food processor.
Add the oil and pumpkin seeds to the food processor. Process until the blend has the consistency of slurry.
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.
Pour in the rice wine vinegar and blend one last time. Taste the sauce and season with salt as necessary.