At the Tuesday Farmers' Market in Arcata, I was pleasantly surprised to learn how cheap basil is right now. Big, verdant bunches, redolent with pungent anise scent; they seemed almost impossible to refuse. With basil so inexpensive, now's the time for making and freezing batches of pesto (and canning tomato sauce, but that's another column). Thanks to the ravishing sunshine even we down in the lowlands have been blessed with recently, summer crops are fallin' off the wagons, so take advantage before the rain advances. Time for pesto!
My mother has this lovely story about pesto. Apparently way back in the olden days, pesto was not the pizza topping and sandwich spread that every Tom, Dick and Harry glops on next to the sundried toms and chevre. Picture Ma in Berkeley in the '70s, a wide-eyed hippie from the frosty hinterlands of Chicago, putting down her fresh baby (moi) to taste pasta with pesto for the first time. It was the most delicious sauce she'd ever had. She actually remembers the specific moment, decades later. As a child, my father's homemade pesto and spaghetti was my favorite dinner, alongside a crispy-skinned roast chicken.
Pesto is kind of inarguable, like caramel apples or peanut butter. No one doesn't like pesto. Personally I'm getting sick of its ubiquity: It's used to hide a multiplicity of sins, which I think is an unfair burden for any one sauce -- but I haven't grown tired of the taste. Sundried tomatoes and chevre can go jump in a lake -- pesto is eternal.
The only trouble with pesto is the prohibitive price of pine nuts. I credit my father for introducing me to cheaper alternatives years ago. I remember coming home in high school to find my father looking wild-eyed and Beethoven-esque in the kitchen, wielding a pestle and insisting, "Taste this!" It was pesto made with walnuts, and it was wonderful. Pine nuts have a buttery-ness almost like clarified butter that is unparalleled amongst nuts, but their flavor is negligible in the face of behemoths like Parmesan and basil. Walnuts are the perfect substitute; they're just the greatest nuts ever. They have a literally sweet flavor that I think contrasts pleasantly with the piquancy of the basil, and though they aren't as rich as pine nuts, frankly with a cup of olive oil the sauce doesn't suffer. Where other nuts can become almost glutinous when ground and don't homogenize with other ingredients, walnuts have a delightful texture when pulverized, which makes them ideal for sauces. Witness pistachio pesto, that terrible idea. Am I eating green cement? And the worst nut EVER, the horrible hazelnut. I saw hazelnut pesto once on a sandwich and I wept.
Anyway walnuts are less expensive and easily obtainable. Their flavor is much improved by toasting, but you must watch them ferociously for they burn all of a sudden and are then unsalvageable. I shake them dry over medium heat in a cast iron pan to ensure I don't miss the crucial point (which can be discerned partly by color and partly by a good, toasty aroma), but a closely timed toaster oven works well.
We can also really go nuts (ha ha) and fiddle with the other ingredients in pesto. Cilantro pesto is colorful and tasty, a bit overwhelming for pasta, but a delicious sauce for fish, especially good on salmon. Parsley pesto, ditto. I leave out the Parmesan in these pestos and don't miss it. Do we still call it pesto? The word just means ‘pounded' after all. The French pistou doesn't use nuts at all. I prefer it with nuts; nuts add weight and body, and without them one just has to add more cheese or the paste may be too loose.
But I digress. The main thing is, summer basil is inexpensive right now, and it's so much better than supermarket winter stuff, you owe it to yourself to buy a bunch or cut it from your garden.
2 cups basil leaves, washed and dried
1/4 cup toasted walnuts
3 cloves garlic
2/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 teaspoon each nice kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Mash walnuts, basil and garlic with a little salt and a spoonful of the olive oil in a mortar and pestle, or pulse in a food processor until fairly, but not totally, smooth.
Add the rest of the oil in a thin stream until sauce is smooth.
Mix in cheese, not all at once, and pepper.
Taste and add salt if necessary.
Do with it what you will (pasta, pizza, whatever).
Cilantro and/or Parsley Pesto
I largish bunch cilantro or parsley, or 1/2 a bunch of each
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup pine nuts or toasted walnuts
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and fresh pepper to taste
Pulse in food processor until mostly smooth, adjusting S&P as needed.
Spoon over with slow roasted salmon or BBQ chicken, or brown rice and tempeh, or use as dip for fresh crudities.
Charlie T's Slow Roasted Salmon
Adapted from Charlie Trotter's Seafood by Charlie Trotter
2 4 ounce pieces salmon, skin removed
4 stalks celery, washed and split
handful fresh thyme or parsley, not chopped
Preheat oven to 225 degrees.
Place the celery strips on a sheet pan to make a rack.
Place the salmon on top, after sprinkling with salt on both sides. Cover with fresh clean thyme or parsley.
Roast for 15 to 20 minutes or until just done. It should look translucent and will be quite buttery.
Remove herb cover and celery.
Serve with cilantro or parsley pesto.