When the weather’s hot, I find ways to work basil into nearly every night’s menu. In caprese salad of course, with handsome whole leaves interspersed with the tomatoes and mozz, or cut in fine chiffonade and showered over just before serving. In ratatouille, with basil’s very good friends eggplant, garlic, bell peppers, summer squash (and more tomatoes), it melts away to unrecognizability, spreading its essential flavor throughout the vegetable stew.
But in the height of summer, I want superultrabasil flavor, and so I turn, inevitably, to pesto. For years I made it the classic Genovese way, using pine nuts. But lately, pine nuts have been letting me down. Honestly, when’s the last time you had a great-tasting pine nut? And it’s not just a freshness issue, though rancidity is always lurking. It’s plain flavor. Pine nuts, at least those I can get, can be remarkably unpleasant tasting. Some people complain of “pine nut mouth,” a lingering, metallic bitterness that affects the ability to taste for days after eating them. I haven’t quite experienced that, but had taken to trying a single nut before proceeding with a recipe.
So lately I’ve turned to walnuts, lightly toasted, for pesto. It’s very good—maybe superior. And pesto with walnuts is known in Liguria—the Italian region where pesto originated, and where local walnuts are used in all sorts of dishes.(I had another pesto, with cherry tomatoes and blanched almonds, in Taste of Orange County recently—you can read about that here.)
As we’re deep into basil season, and even if pine nuts haven’t let you down, give the walnut version a try. It’s good with a little pecorino romano added to the Parmesan in the mix. Tossing the pesto with hot, cooked pasta is a natural, but I also like a wide stripe drizzled across a thick slice of ripe tomato, for the easiest basil-delivery system ever.
1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, roughly chopped
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese (part pecorino romano, if desired)
¼ cup toasted walnuts
2 cups fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
Extra-virgin olive oil to taste
Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
In blender or food processor, combine garlic, cheese, walnuts, basil, large pinch of salt, and several grinds of pepper; blend or process until very finely chopped. With machine running, add olive oil in a thin stream, until pesto has desired texture. Adjust seasoning.