It has been a while since I’ve posted…and what a couple of weeks it has been! I sprained my ankle, started a new job, spent 3 fantastic days in Portland visiting my sister and her family, and generally did not have much time for cooking or sharing. I am finally getting back into action, and one of the first things I needed to do was take stock of my garden. In addition to pulling out sad tomato plants and planting some new Tuscan kale starts, I rounded up the last of my basil. I was surprised to find so much basil still growing in early November, and it’s likely that a few cold evenings would put that to an end. It wasn’t pretty–there were holes in the leaves, and I picked off more than a few snails. But that’s ok–it was a perfect candidate for pesto!
Pesto is one of those recipes that is elegant in its simplicity. Basic ratios allow you to be flexible and use the products you have on hand, and the quality of the component ingredients seems to be the most important thing. The first thing you need is greens/herbs. Basil is the traditional one, but I’ve used arugula, spinach, parsley, or even fennel fronds. Feel free to use a combination–fresh and seasonal is the key. I harvested a combination of Italian basil and Thai basil, so that’s what went into mine.
The next typical component is nuts. I chose to use hazelnuts for my nut component, though pine nuts are the traditional choice. I’ve also used walnuts and cashews. I have been in love with hazelnuts lately–I’ve been playing around with nut butters, and my last batch of hazelnut-cashew-sunflower seed butter was fantastic! So hazelnuts it was. The other ingredients are more stable. Parmesan, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper. Again, quality is key. I like grating my own fresh Parmesan instead of using the pre-grated. It stays much fresher, and I think you can get much better quality cheese for your money buying whole. I get mine at Costco for about $10 per lb (Trader Joe’s is great, too), and it keeps for months in the fridge.
As for olive oil, I don’t use anything too fancy for something like this, but definitely want to know what I’m getting. Unfortunately, labels can be pretty misleading. Many bottles say “imported from Italy”. They don’t say made in Italy, because many producers ship inferior olive oil from other countries to Italy, package it in Italy, then ship it from there. This allows them to say that it came from Italy. Pretty sketchy, huh? I like to buy olive oil that says “made in Italy,” which means it came from there, or California olive oil. Greek and Spanish oils can be great, too, but I prefer the more subtle flavor of Italian extra virgin olive oil for pesto. I also prefer unfiltered oils, when I can find them.
Finally, I actually have a lot to say about salt. I completely stopped using traditional iodized salt for cooking a couple of years ago, and have never looked back. It has a harsh flavor and lacks the nutritional value of more traditional salts. My favorite salt for cooking is Celtic sea salt. It is harvested from the coast of Normandy in France, and dried using traditional methods that keep the natural mineral content high. It adds a lovely flavor to all of my cooking, and comes in various ways. I use their grey salt for most of my everyday cooking–it has large crystals that melt in hot foods. For baking, I use the finely ground salt, and for finishing, they have a lovely fleur de sel. It costs a bit more than traditional table salt, but its flavor and health benefits are certainly worth the extra cost.
Now that we’ve gotten through all of that, the recipe is pretty simple.
Basil and Hazelnut Pesto
- 1 cup hazelnuts
- 2 cups packed basil leaves (remove all stems, as their texture is not pleasing in pesto)
- 3 garlic cloves (or more or less to your taste)
- ~ 1 cup olive oil (add until desired texture is reached)
- 1 cup grated parmesan
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- freshly ground black pepper
- sea salt to taste (1/2 tsp of grey salt is about right for me)