Spring cleaning pesto for the sustainable Berkeley student

Natalie Abber/Staff

Like most Berkeley students paying a ridiculous sum of money to live in a shack, I live with seven other roommates in a small house originally built for a sweet family of four. And, like most homes built for a sweet family of four, our kitchen is miniscule and our fridge space nonexistent.

While each of us makes a sincere effort to only buy what we’ll actually eat throughout the week, it has become commonplace to simply toss half-full bags of spinach, slightly wilted butter lettuce or bruised spring mix in the trash the moment someone announces that they are “Going to Berkeley Bowl! Who wants to come?” Shopping at the market is fun, and anyone who has ever smelled aging kale knows exactly why it’s happily tossed into the dumpster.

On one such Sunday evening last semester, just as I was gearing up to toss the brownish basil I’d purchased a week prior for an Italian chicken sausage-rapini-pasta situation (by the way, if you don’t know what to have for dinner, this entree is exactly it), I turned to my roommate and asked if she also had any herbs or salad greens she was trying to get rid of. It was so sad seeing crumpled Trader Joe’s bags of wilted greens filling our trash bin when we could be making use of the mildly imperfect produce. Before I knew it, our kitchen counter was scattered with small bags of arugula, baby kale, Swiss chard, flat-leaf parsley and my sad little box of basil. I grabbed our blender, some garlic, olive oil, a little handful of cashews, a bigger handful of almonds, and salt and pepper and let it rip. We tasted as we went, adding more oil if it was too thick, more nuts if it was too grassy and more garlic because I’m not dainty!

It quickly became a Sunday tradition to make a pesto or Sliver-style green sauce for the house to share for the next week (read: the next hour before it’s demolished). This week’s concoction was vegan and included basil, Tuscan kale, the remnants of a bag of spinach found in the depths of our fridge (scary), lots of garlic, salt and pepper, lemon and a healthy dollop of raw tahini. Pesto is usually thought of as a boring basil/pine nut story, but really, all you need is a leafy vegetable or herb, some nuts, garlic and your oil of choice to make something vibrant and incredibly summery. Using these basic guidelines, you can add anything to the mix of ingredients you’re trying to get rid of! Too many limes left over from that Wild Thoughts and Tequila Shots shindig? Zest, squeeze and throw ‘em in! Sun-dried tomatoes? Hell, yeah! That block of parmesan cheese you just had to have? You know it! Taste as you go and trust your palette to tell you what you need to add. You’ll be surprised at how often you end up using the sauce to dip truly anything into, thin out for a fresh salad dressing, heap into a bowl of brown rice or casually eat with a spoon. You’ll look crazy gourmet, have an excuse to avoid homework, liven up your dinner regime and feel great about reducing waste!

Not convinced? While I don’t have much of a recipe as our pesto is constantly transforming week by week, I included a basic beginner’s recipe below to get you going on your pesto grind. Chances are, you already own 100 percent of the ingredients. But even if you don’t, you’re a Berkeley student and know how to make it work. That’s the beauty of this dumpster-esque, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink recipe! If you ever need to get rid of something, simply toss it in.

Basic spring cleaning pesto recipe:

Note: If you’re lactose intolerant or vegan, feel free to omit the cheese.

Time: 10-15 minutes totalYield: About 2 cups


  • 1 cup kale (or any other dark leafy green of your choice)
  • 1 cup basil (if you don’t have it, feel free to add something flavorful like arugula or parsley instead)
  • 2 cloves garlic (try to use the fresh stuff, as powder is just a different species)
  • 1/3 cup parmesan cheese (As my girl Ina Garten says, “store-bought is fine, but freshly grated makes all the difference.”)
  • 2-3 tablespoons lightly chopped roasted cashews (or any nut!)
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste


Call all of your roommates to the kitchen immediately to gather the goods!

Combine kale, basil leaves, cashews and garlic in a food processor/blender/Magic Bullet/mortar and pestle, and blend until very finely minced.

With the machine running very slowly, gradually pour in the oil and process until the mixture is smooth and creamy looking. Add the cheese and process very briefly, just long enough to combine. Store in refrigerator or freezer.

Happy spring cleaning!       

Contact Natalie Abber at [email protected].