Ah, lovely pesto! Summer is here and so is the fresh basil. “But don’t you need oil and cheese to make pesto?” No way! These ingredients are traditional, but they can be simply omitted, resulting in a sauce that is much lighter and fresher in taste.
Pesto is an Italian oil-and-herb sauce, with garlic, pine nuts, and cheese. Given that I do not cook with oil or dairy, I simply left out the oil and cheese but kept the nuts (walnuts instead of pine nuts) and other ingredients.
Since oil is so traditional in pesto, you will notice the lack of fat/richness and the slipperiness when combined with noodles. But this is not a deal-breaker in my opinion, since you still get that wonderful punch of fresh basil and garlic, and a subtle richness from the nuts.
Overall, it is a fresher, lighter sauce that is very versatile in use and preparation (see Notes below). Happy pesto-ing!
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup walnuts (1-1/2 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1 bunch fresh basil (30-40 large leaves, or about 2 ounces)
1 package (12-16 ounces) cooked pasta (spaghetti, fettuccini, vermicelli), to serve 4
Optional: 2 tablespoons walnuts
1. In a food processor, blend all ingredients until smooth (1 to 2 minutes), adding a bit of water as needed to thin.
2. Return the just-cooked and drained pasta to its cooking pot with the heat on medium-low, and add the pesto, stirring for 2-3 minutes until the pasta is completely coated and the pesto is warmed through (adding water as needed). Serve immediately as is, or with sautéed vegetables such as mushrooms, summer squash, onions, and fresh tomatoes. Optional: serve with grated walnuts on top (using a rotary cheese grater). See Notes for other serving ideas.
Preparation: 15 minutes
Serves: 4 (makes about 3/4 cup of sauce)
Nuts: If you don’t have walnuts on hand, use another kind of soft nut, such as raw, unsalted cashews or pine nuts (or a mix; walnuts and pine nuts together is nice). Pine nuts are very traditional in pesto, but they are not always easy to find, and they can be very expensive ($25 to $30 a pound), but they do add a very rich, distinctive flavor. All nuts are high in calories and fat, so if you’re watching your calories, omit the nuts or reduce the amount (or add some white beans in place of some of the nuts). The pesto will not be as rich, but once added to pasta and vegetables, it will still have that great basil and garlic taste.
Garlic: Pesto is known for its strong garlic punch, so experiment with different amounts of garlic to match your tastes. Raw garlic can be irritating to some stomachs, so an option is to sauté the minced garlic in a little water prior to adding it to the food processor (if I do this, I will double the garlic amount since the flavor mellows quite a bit when cooked).
Adding greens: You may also substitute half the basil with greens, such as 1/2 cup parsley or spinach, or 1 to 2 leaves of kale or chard. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice is also nice.
Other uses for pesto: I also like to use this pesto with steamed potatoes, as a seasoning for French fries (before baking), stirred into cooked rice, as a salad dressing, in a veggie wrap, or simply over sliced tomatoes.
Above: Basil is known for its sweet smell and strong taste. It’s native to India and other tropical regions of Asia. There are many varieties of basil, but “sweet basil” (above) is most commonly used in the US and in Italian cooking, as opposed to “Thai basil” and “holy basil,” which are used most in Asia.
Above: The finished pesto sauce, with a touch of kale added in.
Above: Toss wedge French fries with pesto sauce before baking for a light seasoning.
Above: Pesto Pasta made with brown rice fettuccini, with walnuts ground on top (using a rotary cheese grater to grind the walnuts).
Above: Boiled potatoes with pesto sauce and ground walnuts.
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