Protective patchwork pestos
Protective patchwork pestos taste better than ordinary shop-bought pesto, but don’t contain the usual ingredients: you won’t need nuts or parmesan, or even basil.
But why on earth would pestos be protective or patchwork?
I’m so glad you asked.
They're protective, because their mix of polyphenols has been shown to support gut health, which means strengthening the immune system too. No bad thing as we venture into a slightly looser lockdown.
And patchwork, because these kinds of pestos aren’t about being neat and purist, but about collecting scraps together to make something more delightful and useful than you expected.
So this blog is here to show you why the protection works, and how to make the pestos yourself.
Protection for the gut
Our guts are engaged in a constant sort of conflict-management, just to balance the bacteria within. This is because we all have potentially pathogenic, or harmful bacteria living in our guts, all the time.
Some pathogens are helpful in small quantities. But they're ever ready to over-grow (and cause health havoc) whenever the gut is stressed. Stress on the gut can come from antibiotics, a sugary diet, oral contraceptives, or just chronic life-stress – though these are just a few of many possible triggers.
The key protective aspect of home-made pesto is the combination of many different herbs and other green leaves. (The other ingredients have wonderful properties too, but we’ll leave that for now.)
And why should a diversity of leaves be so great? Well, it’s because:
a) the leaves provide food for beneficial gut bacteria
b) beneficial gut bacteria crowd out potentially pathogenic bacteria
c) a diversity of leaves supports more diverse strains of gut bacteria and
d) diverse beneficial bacteria confer a greater range of benefits on the person
‘Food for beneficial gut bacteria’ can be summarised by the term ‘pre-biotic’. In contrast, pro-biotics are the beneficial bacteria themselves, which can be supplemented in pill form, but need to be sustained on a diet of pre-biotics in the gut.
Or, to put it a longer way, prebiotics are polyphenols and fibres from plant foods, which beneficial bacteria ferment and use in the intestine. Among many properties, these beneficial bacteria can help the body to absorb B-vitamins and influence a stable mood by supporting healthy neurotransmitters. Which is why consuming prebiotics has been shown to improve both mood and stress levels.
On top of this, when beneficial bacteria ferment prebiotics, they produce short-chain fatty acids which support the health of the gut lining. A healthy gut lining will improve many things, including nutrient absorption (which, for calcium and magnesium, means healthier bones, too), brain health, mood, immunity, skin and heart health.
And on top of all that, when diverse prebiotics encourage the proliferation of a diverse number of beneficial bacteria, the gut receives a greater breadth of support: each bacterial strain offers specific rewards. For example, Lactobacillus Plantarum helps to balance cholesterol levels, while Bifidobacterium Longum has been found to reduce stress and anxiety. And there are thousands of strains of beneficial bacteria.
One large study in America found that bacterial diversity didn’t necessarily result from being ‘vegan’ or ‘omnivore’ or following any particular diet, but rather depended on the number of unique plant foods a person consumed. So this patchwork pesto is a step in that direction.
Pestos for pre-biotic diversity
I first discovered that homemade pestos could be medicinal when I attended a lecture by Miguel Toribio-Mateas, head of the British Association of Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine and a researcher on the gut microbiome.
Toribio-Mateas described how ordinary herbs, when eaten regularly, can gently expel certain pathogenic gut bacteria such as klebsiella, without the need for heavy-duty drugs.
But it’s not just nice clean herbs from a packet that make delicious and healthful pestos!
A bunch of carrot-tops from this week's veg box
I suggest you also collect the following patchwork of greenery:
nettles you pick in the wild (stop the stings: 60 seconds in boiling water then wring out)
dandelions and other foraged leaves from the wild or your lawn – see my blog on foraging for more
a random mix of herbs from the garden or windowsill
a yet more random collection of leftover greenery which you amass in a bag in the fridge, eg: celery leaves, beetroot leaves, carrot tops, blanched upper stalks of broccoli, stalks of parsley, etc. (I found this idea from Sarah Wilson’s book Simplicious, which is full of zero-waste brilliance)
How make a protective patchwork pesto
½ cup of any nuts OR home-sprouted green lentils OR home-sprouted mung beans (these take 2-3 days to make in a jam jar on the windowsill)
2 cups of mixed greens, as above
juice of a lemon (and zest too, if it’s organic – this tastes wonderful)
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
optional – 1 or 2 tablespoons fermented liquid eg whey/kombucha/kefir
What to do
1. In a food processor, or with a large knife, finely chop nuts / sprouts
2. Add and chop the greens very finely
3. Add lemon juice, zest, and chopped garlic
4. Add olive oil and salt to taste and decant into a glass pot
Here's my latest jar of carrot-top and sprouted-lentil pesto. Homemade pestos generally look a bit lighter than the shop-bought kind.
I think this tastes delicious added to almost any savoury dish, hot or cold.
Whatever you don’t use immediately, let it sit on the counter for 3 days to ferment a little. It’ll then keep in the fridge for week or two.
Let me know if you try out a protective patchwork pesto. I hope you enjoy it!
To your best of health,
Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT,
Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC
References and resources
Collins, S., Reid, G., 2016. Distant Site Effects of Ingested Prebiotics. Nutrients 8, 523.
Fuentes, M.C. et al, 2013. Cholesterol-lowering efficacy of Lactobacillus plantarum CECT 7527, 7528 and 7529 in hypercholesterolaemic adults. British Journal of Nutrition 109, 1866–1872.
McDonalda, D. et al, 2018. American Gut: an Open Platform for Citizen-Science Microbiome Research.
Messaoudi, M. et al, 2011. Assessment of psychotropic-like properties of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in rats and human subjects. British Journal of Nutrition 105, 755–764.
Schmidt, K. et al, 2015. Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology (Berl) 232, 1793–1801.
Toribio-Mateas, M., 2018. Harnessing the Power of Microbiome Assessment Tools as Part of Neuroprotective Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine Interventions. Microorganisms 6.
Zhao, L. et al, 2018. Gut bacteria selectively promoted by dietary fibers alleviate type 2 diabetes. Science 359, 1151–1156.