Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Rustic walnut pesto

Coming back from my trip to a completely empty fridge, I'm now reacquainting myself with my kitchen and the kinds of food I used to eat pre-California, pre-fast food, pre-lavender-infused everything. One of the last meals I had before the trip was with a beautifully rustic pesto made with walnuts. It started with a bunch of basil I couldn't refuse. It called out to me with such an intoxicating fragrance at the farmer's market that it made me swoon. I used walnuts in place of pine nuts because they're more heart-healthy, and I was also in the mood for a little bitterness.

As for technique, I'm a bit of a techno-phobe in the kitchen. Aside from my KitchenAid mixer, I'm convinced all things taste better the closer they are made to the hands. In the pesto realm, I've read several cooks' opinions that using a mortar and pestle is far superior to the food processor because mashing the basil allows the flavors to fully release whereas processing it just turns the pesto into slop. You're also left with a more vibrant green color. For me, hand-mashing just feels like the right thing to do.

This time around, I wanted to try a method I read about in 101 Cookbooks. I oftentimes find great satisfaction in the long method of doing things, and this process looked so messy and appealing to me. You simply chop the ingredients together one-by-one with a knife or a mezzaluna. And because you're left with nut pieces that are chopped rather than smashed, this method yields a very rustic version of a pesto. I just loved the way it came out with the basil still a bright green, in varying shapes and sizes with irregular bits of nuts and garlic in between.

To serve, I had the pesto on pearl barley instead of pasta because a chef friend of mine eats pearl barley practically on a daily basis and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Cooked right, it has a great toothiness and a nuttiness that goes really well with pesto. I also tossed in some steamed asparagus and some lemon zest for a bright flavor.

Recipe: Rustic walnut pesto
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
1 large bunch of basil, unbruised leaves only, washed and dried
3 medium cloves of garlic
1 small handful of walnuts
3/4 cup Parmesan, loosely packed and freshly grated
A few tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or to taste

Start chopping the garlic along with about 1/3 of the basil leaves. Once this is loosely chopped add more basil, chop some more, add the rest of the basil, chop some more. Scrape and chop, gather and chop. At this point the basil and garlic should be a very fine mince. Add about half the walnuts, chop. Add the rest of the walnuts, chop. Add half of the Parmesan, chop. Add the rest of the Parmesan, and chop. In the end you want a chop so fine that you can press all the ingredients into a basil "cake" (see photo). Transfer the pesto "cake" to a small bowl not much bigger than the cake. Cover with a few tablespoons of olive oil.

You can set this aside or place it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. Just before serving, give the pesto a quick stir to incorporate some of the oil into the basil. Once tossed with the medium, season well with salt. And if needed, thin the pesto with a splash of pasta water.
Makes about 1 cup.


industrialpoppy said...

Oh this sounds just great-I have bunches of basil ready to be enjoyed in the garden right now!