Radish Leaf Pesto


“The skins of onions, green tops from leeks, stems from herbs must all be swept directly into a pot instead of the garbage. …It’s easy to forget, leaves and stalks are parts of a vegetable, not obstacles to it,” ― Tamar Adler, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace

I’ve always hated to waste food, but even more so after I signed up for a CSA. When you know people whose hands worked the soil and picked the vegetables, you feel closer to them and to your food. It makes it harder to say goodbye to even the scrips and scraps leftover from preparing a meal. It makes me want to find a purpose for every stem and leaf.

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Tamar Adler’s book The Everlasting Meal inspired me to get creative about using every part of the plant, getting the marrow from every meat bone, and rewarding every cheese rind with a last job to do. I forget where exactly the impulse to turn radish leaves into pesto came from. At first it seems unintuitive—after all, the radishes of my childhood came in plastic bags at the supermarket, already de-leafed. And the spicy, peppery flavor of radish leaves is so different from the bright, herbaceous parsley typically used to make pesto. But somehow or another, there was a day in my kitchen when my radish leaves ended up in the blender with glug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and a sprinkling of salt.

The nice thing about making radish leaf pesto is that you can do it a little different every time. Without parmesan or another hard cheese on hand, a handful of walnuts, pecans, or almonds add a creamy, umami balance to the vegetal, salt, and acid flavors. With some fresh herbs or spring onions, turnip tops, or even kale in the fridge, the radish leaves might find they have companionship. When I find myself without a lemon, I try white wine vinegar or lime. This is a recipe that doesn’t require measurement. Pesto invites you to play with whatever is in your pantry.

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There are a few potential pitfalls to be aware of. Radish and turnip tops can be a little bitter as well as peppery, and sometimes olive oil can become bitter when thrown into the blender. If bitter isn’t your favorite flavor, you’ll either want to process your leaves with a little water separately and then hand-whisk the olive oil in or be careful to run the blender for the least amount of time needed to emulsify your pesto. Walnuts can also sometimes have a bitter edge. You can embrace this aspect of radish leaf pesto and balance it out with extra cheese, salt, or lemon, or add in basil, parsley, or even cilantro to contrast.

As for what to enjoy your pesto on, the possibilities are endless. I like to think beyond the pasta bowl, and spread mine on pizza, serve with cheese, crackers, and charcuterie when guests come over, spread on tortillas or lavash for lunchtime wraps, swirl into grain, vegetables and a protein for a health grain bowl, or stir it into sunny side up eggs as they cook in the pan. You can marinade almost any protein, animal or non, or spread it over fries made from potatoes or even the turnip roots themselves.

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One of my favorite ideas is to freeze pesto, either in ice cube trays or in a small jar or plastic container, to enjoy when springtime has passed and radishes are no longer in season. One of the great joys of “putting up” produce is getting to enjoy fresh flavors throughout the year, or having a treat on hand for a special occasion or when you need a little pick-me-up.

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