We’re about to jump right into “how do you make pesto?” with this easy vegetarian recipe, though we aren’t making a traditional pesto paste here, we’re taking a stab at my take on it, basil walnut pesto. This homemade pesto sauce can be used just like a traditional pesto, but what is a traditional pesto? Well, let’s find out.
Is there a traditional pesto?
In the 1992 remake of Christmas in Connecticut, Elizabeth Lane combines mint, parsley, and olive oil to make a “beautiful mint pesto” with which to top her potatoes. Pestos are, however, considered passe, as her producer, played by Tony Curtis, lectures her. So instead she renames it a “puree.” For this recipe, we will make a real homemade pesto, and not just Elizabeth’s bland substitute. A classic pesto has, in fact, no parsley whatsoever, and she’s missing some important ingredients such as cheese and garlic.
Elizabeth did get a thing or two thing right–she uses a mortar and pestle during the filming of that scene. Pesto gets its name from a Genoese derivation of the Italian word Pestare, which means to crush or pound, such as with a wooden pestle. The pesto alla genovese is the classic recipe that we all think of, and rightly so as it is the most popular version around the world and in Italy. However passe her “pesto” was, it was truly a pesto. Anything made by pounding is generally called a pesto, which is why my recipe and many other variations are truly pestos. Or is it pesti?
The Italian’s predecessors, the ancient Romans, made the first pesto-like substance, combining herbs with garlic, salt, cheese, olive oil, and vinegar. In the middle ages, a popular pesto sauce called agliata was a mixture of walnuts and garlic. I can’t say whether or not agliata lovers knew about the benefits of walnuts, but I will be using walnuts in this recipe. Why walnuts instead of pine nuts? Either would do, but I wanted both the flavor and benefits of walnuts.
What are those wonderful benefits of Walnuts?
- Have more antioxidants than any other nuts per serving, reducing LDL cholesterol and and fighting damage.
- Have more Omega 3s than any other nut per serving, further reducing the risk of heart disease.
- May decrease the inflammation related to many chronic diseases.
- May reduce the risk of “hormonal” cancers such as breast and prostate cancer.
- Lower blood pressure and control blood sugar. In a study of daily users of walnut oil, fasting blood sugar was reduced by up to 8%. (See here)
- Improve male fertility
- Aid in maintaining gut bacteria.
- Support brain functions such as memory and processing time; after all, a walnut looks just like a little brain hemisphere.
Not only did she not include any nuts, but Elizabeth also left out the basil. In modern times, I suspect many amateur chefs are cringing at the notion, but I often make homemade pesto with whatever fresh green stuff I find in the garden: soft carrot tops make a wonderful fresh pesto. Maybe I’ll share that recipe with you next summer. But again, Elizabeth wasn’t wrong. The first reference of basil into pesto was noted in an 1863 book titled La Cuciniera Genovese, by Giovanni Ratto, but he allowed for substitutions if it wasn’t available:
Take a clove of garlic, basil or, when that is lacking, marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch and Parmigiano cheese and mix them with pine nuts and crush it all together in a mortar with a little butter until reduced to a paste. Then dissolve it with good and abundant oil.
Pesto and the United States
Pesto didn’t come to the United States until World War II. In a review of food delicacies available in the city, Jane Holt wrote about an “Italian paste” that was dark free in color and made of “finely chopped parsley, anise, basil, garlic, cheese, olive oil, and seasoning.” She prescribed adding it to oil or fortified margarine ( we don’t!) to create a sauce. The mixture should be heated, added to spaghetti and sprinkled with an “Italian-type grated cheese.” The anise, she noted, was most prominent, with there being only a “trace of basil.” The recommended brand was Poggioli and sold for a mere 28 cents!
Sunset published the first pesto recipe in the U.S., provided by one Angelo Pellegrini, just two years later. His recipe was vague and provided no measurements for any ingredients, just some of this and some of that. I promise to do better so that you can replicate both the walnut pesto and the salmon easily. I reduce the cheese and olive oil from a traditional recipe to cut down on the fat and calories; you can always add more olive oil later if you use the leftovers on vegetables, pasta, or pizza. The walnuts, though they have a stronger taste than pine nuts, will not be overpowering. To borrow from Pellegrini, this pesto “is an extraordinarily pleasant experience both for the nostrils and the palate. Its only disadvantage is that it may unduly whet the appetite.”
Pesto paste is intentionally, well, a paste. So, with a few modifications you’ll be on your way to using it for whatever application you can think of.
How to use Pesto Paste:
- Pasta: for pasta dishes use the paste by simply adding it to the pan, along with 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil per serving (approximately 1/4 cup) and saute for 2 minutes to slightly cook garlic. Then toss with your favorite whole grain pasta, protein, and vegetables, and enjoy.
- Pizza: for pizza, spread the paste thinly over the crust. Extra virgin olive oil can be added to the crust, but is optional.
- Marinades: for marinades the paste is ready to go as a topping, or as a traditional marinade.
Enjoy this recipe, and be sure to let us know how you used it in the comments below!
Basil Walnut Pesto Paste
- 1 clove garlic peeled, end removed (add more if desired)
- 1/2 cup walnuts
- 1/3 cup Romano cheese grated
- 1/4 cup olive oil extra virgin, see notes
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 cups fresh basil loosely packed, washed and dried
- Process all ingredients (garlic, walnuts, cheese, pepper, and olive oil) except for the basil in a food processor until they form a thin paste.
- Add the basil and process until the leaves are all chopped up and incorporated.
- Use immediately or freeze for later use.
- Applications for pesto paste:
- For pasta: add desired servings to a saute pan along with 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil per serving. Saute for approximately 2 minutes to cook the garlic slightly. Toss with whole grain pasta, vegetables, and protein of choice.
- For pizza: spread thinly over crust. An additional drizzle of extra virgin olive oil is optional.
- For marinades: the paste is ready to go as a topping or for a traditional marinade. Simply use as such.
- I add the basil last to preserve as much of the bright green color as possible.
- This pesto freezes well, but its color will turn darker. I use ice cube trays, storing the frozen cubes in labeled containers and defrosting a few at a time as needed.
- It’s fine to use Parmesan if you prefer it or that’s what you have on hand; I think Romano allows the basil and walnut flavors to come through more.