Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pesto Pipián

This recipe was born of an excess of cilantro. Like many people -- and despite growing up with lots of Mexican food -- I had an aversion to cilantro until I discovered late-night Vietnamese food in college. [Houston has the second largest and most diverse immigrant population after New York, did you know that?]

I now love cilantro, but really doesn't keep well and I got a _lot_ of it at an outdoor stall in Boston's "Haymarket," a place known for cheap produce with a very short (2nd?) shelf life. I used some cilantro for salsa and meant to put on some tacos but forgot, and the rest -- the vast majority-- sat unused and unloved, taking up valuable real estate in the refrigerator.
So, JG and I were discussing what to do with the excess cilantro over a dinner of homemade green-chile pork burgers* [on homemade buns, of course] that also happened to leave excess ground meat.

JG: "I wonder what cilantro pesto would taste like."
WGT: "We should find out."
JG: "Agreed."
WGT: "Ooh! You know what I think we should make for our leftover meat?"
JG: "Cilantro pesto?"
WGT: "Pipián! -- but pesto would be good too..."
Then we nodded at one another for an inappropriate length of time before finishing the burgers.

I should explain that pipián is a pumpkin seed [pepita] sauce loosely related --and sometimes identical-- to mole verde and can be made a million different ways. There's usually garlic/ cilantro/jalepeno/chicken stock and some combination of onion/almond/tomatillo/romaine/cornmeal/sour cream/cumin all pureed together and cooked in oil, but the only universal requirement is ground pumpkin seeds.

A pesto sauce, on the other hand, usually uses an herb, garlic, nuts, cheese, and olive oil. The ratios are a little different from a pipián sauce, but pipián's a pretty loose recipe, so why not use pesto ratios (to use up my cilantro) and replace both nuts and cheese with pumpkin seeds?
So...  I started to rethink my idea as I watched my bountiful greens shrank to tiny specks with half of the called-for oil... but I ostensibly had another 1/4 of oil to add.  A pesto uses roughly equal parts nuts/cheese to olive oil because it, unlike pipián, is not meant to be generously slathered on things; it clings with its oily goodness. I didn't want a coating; I wanted a meatball sauce. I opted to use water for the balance of the volume. It made a lovely green sauce the consistency of a sour cream dip(!). It took quite a bit more water put me in perfect meatball sauce territory [and those meatballs were very, very tasty*].
A few days later -- and hopelessly addicted -- I made more pesto pipián using canola [rapeseed] in lieu of olive oil. This time, without the assertive EVOO, the surprisingly delicate flavor of the cilantro brightened the earthy pepitas and it was even better. We tested it over chicken tacos, and that's was when JG and I agreed that this sauce may very well be my greatest culinary achievement to date.

Recipe: Pesto Pipián
I included recipes for tacos and meatballs below, but this sauce has lots of possibilities, like topping poached fish, seared scallops, or enchiladas, or roasted veggies... or the most amazing dip or crostini [topped with seared onions?] your friends ever had. I've now tried it with both pepper options, and I think I prefer the serrano for a little more bite, but to each his own.  If you only have a small chopper/food processor, just add the cilantro in batches; it shrinks quickly.

2 packed cups cilantro (1 large bunch), thicker stems removed
1/2 cup pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds)
1/4 cup canola oil [or other neutral oil]
3 cloves garlic, roasted or nuked
1 green chile or serrano, roasted and seeded
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cumin
3/4 cup water or chicken stock 
Combine all ingredients except water in a food processor and puree until almost smooth, occasionally stopping the machine to scrape down the sides. ~3 minutes. Add water and pulse to combine. [It'll splash.] Store in a airtight container for up to 5 days, or freeze.

Chicken Tacos with Pesto Pipián:
serves 4

1/2 recipe pesto pipián
1 1/2 lbs chicken, cooked and shredded
1/2 onion, slice thin pole-to-pole
12 corn tortillas
1/4 cup crumbled fresh cheese [queso fresco, feta, etc.]
hot sauce

In a sauce pot, sear onions over high heat until just translucent with charred spots. Transfer to a small serving bowl. Using same pot (no need to wipe it out), heat sauce until it starts to sputter. Stir in cooked chicken and turn off heat. Serve on warm corn tortillas with onions, cheese, and hot sauce.

Basic Meatball Recipe with Pesto Pipián:
serves 4

1/2 recipe pesto pipián
2 lbs ground meat (any, really: pork, beef, lamb, or poultry)
1 pureed onion
1/3 cup milk
2 cloves garlic, minced to a paste
1/2 tsp salt

Beat everything together in a mixer until it gets almost pasty. Pan fry a tablespoon of the meat to test for seasoning, then let the remainder sit at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days before cooking(in a refrigerated, airtight container).
Cook meat over medium heat, turning to brown all sides, until cooked through, ~10 minutes. Transfer balls to a bowl, add 1/2 cup water to pan and scrape up all the browned bits to deglaze. Add pesto pipián stir to combine with deglazing water, and return meatballs to pan. Cook until sauce comes to the boil and thickens to its original state. It's excellent over brown rice or polenta.

*no pictures, sorry.


  1. 忙碌的一天終於過了,來看看文章轉換心情,也幫你加個油哦~ ..................................................

  2. This is amazing! I made some last night and I'll be having it with everything for the next few days. I put it over a chicken patty from Trader Joe's, along with some caramelized onions and a bit of queso fresco. Yummy! Thank you for sharing. :)

  3. This might well be my favorite culinary creation and I've turned several friends into pesto pipian addicts. I'm so glad you're spreading the obsession!