Walnut & Basil Pesto
My Recipes|Luke Chavez
October 7, 2021
This past summer, with its long dry heatwave, was difficult on several plants in our kitchen garden. I had lost all hope for our row of basil plants in August, as they looked quite sad and limp. Now, after a month of less severe temperatures, the garden has rebounded and we have a giant crop of perfectly fragrant basil, just in time to coincide with the abundance of late season ripe tomatoes that have piled up. Though summer is technically over, the season has been extended in our house with all the caprese salads and margherita pizzas that have been enjoyed lately. As first frost is probably just a few weeks away, the job of harvesting and preserving this bounty is in full swing. With large batches of tomato sauce made and jarred last week, this week I began to make batches of pesto, the bright green and versatile Italian classic. With just a few ingredients that are big on flavor, homemade pesto is surprisingly easy to make and infinitely better than anything found in a supermarket.
3 tablespoons chopped walnuts
2 cloves of garlic, halved
2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup finely grated parmesan
Place walnuts in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Process in pulses, until evenly ground to a coarse cornmeal consistency. Scrape sides with rubber spatula. Add the garlic, basil, salt, and black pepper. Continue to process in pulses, scraping sides with spatula occasionally, until garlic and basil is chopped evenly and mixed with walnuts. With the food processor running, pour the olive oil in a steady stream, as the pesto comes together. Scrape sides and check that all ingredients are chopped to the same fineness. Add parmesan and mix together in pulses until just incorporated. The pesto will thicken up with the cheese. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed. Check consistency and add more olive oil if pesto is too thick.
The classic Genovese Pesto is made using pine nuts, which are fantastic but a little expensive. I love the flavor of the walnuts with the basil, but you could also try using pecans, pistachios, or even almonds. I have also made a lovely pesto using pepitas.
If you don't have basil growing in your garden, fresh basil can be found year-round in most supermarkets. Another version of pesto that I love to make uses arugula instead of basil. Choose tender baby arugula leaves and add a little lemon juice with the olive oil. Experiment with other tender greens or combinations of fresh herbs, such as parsley, beet greens, or carrot tops. In the spring try using garlic scapes instead of the cloves.
Because the olive oil is one of just a few ingredients, use the best quality extra virgin olive oil you can find.
Pesto freezes beautifully and will provide a bright green sunny flavor to your winter cooking. When chilling or freezing pesto for later use, pour a thin layer of olive oil over the top of the pesto, to help preserve the color and flavor. Allow pesto to come to room temperature before using in a recipe.
The traditional method for making pesto is by hand in a mortar and pestle. When making it this way grind the ingredients in the same order: nuts first, then garlic, salt, and basil, then oil and cheese.
Serve pesto as a spread with fresh baked bread, as a sauce base for pizza, or with your favorite pasta. Try it tossed with warm roasted vegetables, or as a final garnish to bowl of hot lentils. When I add pesto to cooked pasta, I toss it immediately after draining the water, with a pad of butter and splash of the pasta cooking water. Plenty of fresh ground parmesan or pecorino Romano is always a good idea sprinkled on top. Enjoy!