Don’t go nuts over pesto, personalize your recipe

Although my garden has basil aplenty, pesto plans were put on hold for the past month or so for want of pine nuts.

My mother-in-law, who puts up pints of pesto every year, first reported that Food 4 Less was out of pine nuts and asked if I could look for some at Costco. Perish the thought of purchasing the costly seeds in any form but bulk.

Three trips to Costco later turned up nary a nut. In the meantime, I inquired about them at Food 4 Less and was told the cost had risen so sharply that the store would have to charge an astronomical price per pound. I wondered if this increase was somehow related to reduced imports of pine nuts following last year’s story on mysterious cases of “pine mouth.” Anyone heard anything about this?

Pine nuts did eventually return to Food 4 Less, where I purchased them this past week. Even if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have put off making pesto forever. As any cook worth her salt knows, they’re not an essential component of the recipe nor by any means the only nuts one can use.

This week’s A Fresh Approach column advocated personalizing your pesto by adding more garlic or cutting back on cheese. But beyond providing her recipe, Jan Roberts-Dominguez didn’t mention trying other nuts or herbs, for that matter.

Of course, if it doesn’t contain basil, perhaps it can’t really be called pesto. It’s the same concept, though.

I’ve made pesto pairing walnuts and parsley, almonds and mint, even pumpkin seeds and cilantro. But my most beloved trick to date is one I learned from Maria Katsantones, former community outreach assistant at Ashland Food Co-op.

With an April 2008 story on reducing one’s “food-print,” the newspaper’s A la Carte section printed Katsantones’ recipe for Seasonal Pesto. The instructions were unlike any I’d ever seen, calling for chopping the nuts separately in a food processor, transferring them to a bowl with finely grated cheese and then proceeding by blending only the garlic and herbs with the oil and lemon juice before finally stirring all the ingredients together.

“Really?” I thought. Why would you go to all the trouble of chopping ingredients separately when it’s supposed to be just a paste? Yet I had to defer to Maria, who is Greek, after all.

Once I tried Maria’s method, I was wholly sold on it. The texture had so much more visual and tactile appeal. The flavors were so much cleaner and distinctive. Give it a go and tell me what you think.

Until then, here are a few tips for using the summer’s bounteous basil to its best effect.

Don’t overlook other varieties like lemon basil, cinnamon basil, Thai basil and purple basil. While the Thai kind must be cooked to release its intense flavor, basil generally imparts the most flavor when left raw and added to dishes almost immediately before serving. When cooked, most basil wanes in flavor.

A natural in savory dishes, basil also pairs well with the sweetness of fruit, particularly peaches and mangoes. Infuse the herb into a simple syrup to baste onto grilled fruit or to flavor a cocktail or fresh summer lemonade.

When adding basil to any dish, snip the leaves or gently tear them to preserve the beautiful green hue. Basil bruises easily, which results in blackened leaves. The leaves also turn dark when subjected to heat or even a too-cold refrigerator.

However, refrigerating is recommended for store-bought basil, which will keep up to a week in a plastic bag or cup of water covered with a plastic bag.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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