This combination of leafy green herbs, olive oil, and garlic are the building blocks for a truly versatile sauce
This post originally appeared in the November 30, 2020 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
If there’s a scrappy bouquet of parsley wilting on your counter, or a few scraggly mint leaves drying out in the back of your fridge, I have just the recipe for you. Well, it’s not exactly a recipe, nor does it have a name, but when the herbs pile up in a sad bunch, and the last lemon is starting to wrinkle up and shrink, this sauce makes use of what would otherwise get scrapped. It’s good on pretty much everything but ice cream, and it’s incredibly simple to make.
I first had some version of it years ago while I was cooking in a Bay Area restaurant, where I worked prep shifts before the real cooks came in for dinner service. One of my only jobs was to make this sauce, which would later be spooned over Brussels sprouts crisped in a wood-burning oven. Depending what was in the box of produce heaved onto the counter each morning, the sauce would change week to week. But the building blocks were always the same: a cup of olive oil poured into a small cast-iron skillet, a big pinch of red pepper flakes, the zest of a lemon, and some finely slivered cloves of garlic. Once the garlicky oil, which acted as a blank canvas, cooled, I’d add chopped parsley and cilantro, along with a big pinch of salt and a heaping handful of crushed or chopped black olives. Once in a while, usually when a chef was yelling at me to work faster, I’d mix up the herbs and add mint instead, and sometimes that day’s sauce ended up with twice as much garlic as usual or no parsley at all. No one ever complained.
Oftentimes, I’d finish my shift, go home, and get started on another batch of sauce, so I could have it handy in my own kitchen all week. In the eight years since that job, I’ve continued to make the shapeshifting green sauce. At some point, I forgot exactly what went into the original recipe, and my sauce turned into something that the restaurant’s chef probably wouldn’t recognize. But that’s part of what makes a non-recipe like this one so beautiful: The building blocks, not the exact ingredients, are what make for such a trusty and reliably delicious result. If it’s going on a fatty piece of meat, I up the acidity to cut through all that richness. If it’s being paired with fish or roasted vegetables, I go a little heavier on the briny olives.
Instead of offering yet another holiday recipe for you to follow to a tee this season, maybe I can convince you to join me in improvising your way through a batch of recipeless green sauce. Start with olive oil — this is really the only bit that can’t be ignored or improvised. A cup or so goes into a little skillet, along with a two-finger pinch of red pepper flakes, or a few cranks of black pepper, or maybe some whole cumin seeds. Or all three! Grate or finely slice three or four (or five) cloves of garlic, and add those to the skillet, too. (You could swap the garlic out for paper-thin half-moons of shallot, but really, why would you ever swap anything for garlic?) This is when you turn on the flame to a lowish heat, and watch the oil for those little bubbles to get bigger, for the spices to become fragrant, for your garlic or shallot to take on a tiny bit of color.
Pull the oil from the heat and search around for all the forgotten herbs on windowsills and tucked away in the fridge. Pluck the leaves from these tender herbs — no rosemary, sage, or thyme here, please — and keep plucking until you’ve got about an equal ratio of herb to oil. Roughly chop, and toss them into a bowl with your garlicky olive oil. To this already-perfect mixture, you’ll want to add the juice and zest of a whole lemon, or if you stopped buying citrus when you realized you never use it up in time, you can go with a quarter cup of sherry vinegar or even plain white vinegar instead. Add a pinch of salt and this is ready to spoon over all your Thanksgiving leftovers, some fried eggs, or really anything else. I have yet to find a better match for it than a pan of well-crisped Brussels sprouts, though.
For me, this sauce isn’t done until it gets a very large helping of something briny and salty and fresh. I usually stick with the same black olives — not canned! — that I first learned to make this with, about a cup of them crushed or chopped. There’s nothing stopping you from using capers instead — about a quarter cup sounds right. You could skip the briny stuff altogether, crushing up a couple good anchovies with the side of your knife and tossing them into the oil while it’s still warm. Right before I use the sauce, I like to add a big handful of toasted and chopped almonds or some whole pine nuts.
When all is done, and you’ve made a batch to last you through the week, I’m sure your sauce won’t be quite like mine. As far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly as it should be.