A Native American Pesto?

I first became aware of pesto back in the early nineties. I don’t remember how I heard about it — probably a magazine or web article. It’s a simple food which originated in Italy; a lot of sweet basil leaves (I prefer the Genovese variety) chopped or even pureed with a smaller quantity of parsley, parmesan cheese, olive oil, pine nuts, and optionally garlic. It’s a greenish spreadable food which doesn’t look particularly appetizing when first encountered. There are many variations. Either a food processor or a blender is the pulverizing agent.

I could eat pesto every day; I just love the stuff.

Betsy and I planted a big patch of basil one spring and made pesto all that summer and many summers to follow. Pine nuts were too expensive so we substituted unsalted sunflower seeds or walnuts. Betsy discovered that basil and parsley leaves could be frozen spread out on cookie sheets, bagged up, and put back in the freezer. Winter pesto!

This summer has been rainy and my basil and parsley are thriving. I just finished making a batch of pesto; it takes about ten minutes. I used cashews rather than pine nuts.

Pesto is versatile; traditionally it is served with pasta, but it also makes a fine sandwich spread. Freshly-made tortilla fragments can be dipped in pesto. I enjoy mixing up food cultures.

As I sampled the new batch I got to thinking. Could a pesto analog be made with plants native to this continent?

Basil is in the mint family but its strong odor is pungent and not minty at all. My favorite native mint-family plant is the Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum pilosum. The species is an upland tallgrass prairie plant and it has a heavenly odor. Let’s see… walnut oil could be substituted for olive oil, and hickory nuts could take the place of those expensive pine nuts. Let’s toss in some ramps or other wild onions rather than garlic. There are several umbelliferous plants which could take the place of parsley, and the salt could come from salt licks.

I’ll bet nobody has ever tried this!

My friend Jeff and I are collaborating on a garden this year. Here are the thriving basil plants:

And here’s my old friend, the Hairy Mountain Mint:

Sometimes I’m envious of old cultures such as those in Europe and Asia. They’ve had thousands of years to develop techniques for using native vegetation and fauna as food, while we’ve just had a couple of hundred years. Most of our cuisine and many of the foods we eat are imports from the Old World. Of course Americans were and are compensated by vast areas of virgin fertile soil, so I guess it’s a wash.




Filed under Food

12 responses to “A Native American Pesto?

  1. Virginia

    Larry, I enjoyed your comments and pictures of herbs from your garden. I wonder where you found seed for mountain mint. A biologist gave me some branches of mountain mint after a tour of the extensive wetlands of Haskell Indian University. As you said, it grew in the upland area and had a haunting fragrance. It was delicately minty, and made a wonderful tea. Because I also grow a variety of herbs to cook with also, I’ve been on the lookout for mountain mint seeds for some time.

  2. The pycnanthemum photo was from my Missouri days, but I’m sure it grows here in Illinois. The trick to getting seeds of the plant is to find one after it has gone to seed and the leaves have withered. I suppose a flowering Mountain Mint could be flagged so that it could be located later.

    If I can find some (maybe next summer) I’ll mail you a packet.

  3. Virginia, here’s a good source of P. pilosum seeds, bare-root plants, and potted green plants. I’d recommend the bare-root plants. October would be the ideal time to plant.

    Prairie Moon Nursery

  4. Joan

    Great photo of ‘Hairy’ the mint, Larry. Where was it taken? Not that I have anything against Kale, but I love flowery photos.

  5. The Mountain Mint photo isn’t mine, it’s just one I found on the ‘net.

  6. Joan

    Well, it certainly looks like yours. There have to be a gazillion comparable in your archives from Knox Cnty and Ireland.

  7. Virginia

    Thank you for the website. It looks like an interesting one to explore. I’ll wait for later this summer and order bare root plants. I usually have success with them.
    There is an interesting mystery plant growing in the back yard. It came up as a non-descript “weed” where nothing else grew well. It had an interesting leaf on a one foot tall stalk the first year ending in small blue flowers. I decided a bird planted it so would see what happened the next year. I moved the compost to this poor soil area so it could add to fertility while it matured for the garden. Now in the third year of growth for the mystery plant, there are about eight four-foot tall stems with opposing bades topped with gorgeous almost thistle-like “fluffy” blue flowers with gold stamen. Bees cover this wild flower, so it can live and multiply there as long as it wants. I searched the net for blue wildflowers from Kansas and Missouri with no luck. Any ideas, anyone.

  8. The probable reason you couldn’t find the plant at the wildflower web-sites is that it most likely is an alien. Search for “weeds of Kansas” or “weeds of Missouri” and you might find it. E-mail me a photo and I might be able to help: larry.ayers@gmail.com

    If the flowers are thistle-like the plant is in the Composite Family.

  9. Virginia

    Thank you. I’ll check weeds first, then Composite Family, though a weed is simply a plant out of place. For example butterfly weed has a stunning orange flower and is sold under the name, butterfly weed. The bees love this large flowering “weed.” Incidently it’s purple in sunlight. I was watering in twilight when I first saw the blooms and they looked more blue than purple. Sorry for the misinformation, but it wasn’t in purple wildflowers either. The leaves don’t look like thistle leaves at all.

  10. Virginia

    I found the mystery plant!! But I wonder if you’ll see the comment this late. Anyway it is a Western ironweed, Vernonia baldwinii, Asteraceae (aster family). The pictures in the website show the exact clusters of purple flowers (sorry again about originally writing blue) that are on my now well-established weed. http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=VEBA Luckily it is growing in a small hardened pile of gravel and clay dug out to deepen a French drain. Nothing else will grow there that the local groundhog will leave alone. The beautiful weed seems to like the spot near the compost pile and it feeds bees and butterflies so it can stay.

  11. I’m familiar with Ironweed. It’s a native prairie and savannah plant which has survived in cattle pastures because cows don’t like it. It’s a favorite for many butterflies; I’ve seen many Great Spangled Fritillaries visiting the plant.

    So groundhogs don’t like it either!

  12. Virginia

    No, the young groundhog that graces our yard eats nearly everything except ironweed and yucca. I haven’t seen a Great Spangled Fritillary on the ironweed, but yellow swallowtails and monarchs are visiting it on their August migration.

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