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Because Pine Nuts Can Be Pricey: Here’s How To Make Pesto Without Them

How to make pesto, with or without pine nuts? 1 part nuts, 2 parts oil, 6 parts herbs.

Everyone everywhere should know how to make pesto. In fact, a jar of homemade pesto, stored in the fridge, is one of my top kitchen secrets. The oily, herb-y condiment isn’t just for pasta. You can spread it on toast, use it as a salad dressing, bake it into savory breads, toss and roast vegetables in it, marinade and baste meats with it, mix it into creamy dips, or use it as a dip alone.

Shall I continue? Ok! Use pesto instead of mayonnaise in rustic sandwiches, make a tomato-free pizza using green sauce, spoon it over fried eggs, add a dollop to garnish soup, or give a flavor punch to appetizers and canapes. The list is endless. Having a jar of pesto on hand offers you the opportunity to instantly upgrade any dish.

The only catch is the price it costs to prepare it. Of the eight ingredients, seven are easily acquired: olive oil, basil, garlic, lemon, a sharp-flavored cheese, salt, and pepper. But the last ingredient—and the root of its distinct Italian flavor, the pine nut—cost on average $20 per pound! Why is this?

Well, a few different factors drive up the price. First, time costs money: Pine trees take anywhere from 18 months to three years to start bearing seeds (a.k.a. “pine nuts”). Their rate of maturity is dragged out by a dormant autumn and winter period. Second, extracting the seeds is painstaking process: When the pine cones finally reach maturity, they must be dried out (traditionally in burlap bags laid out in the sun) for many days. The cones are then cracked to release their pine pods. But it’s not done yet, as pine pods are not the actual ‘‘pine nuts.” The pods contain the pine nuts, and so a second extraction is necessary. Combine this with recent years of poor crop production, and an increased Western demand for the luxury ingredient, and you have a recipe for high prices.

Luckily, pesto can be made from many different ingredients. You can save the traditional pine-nut version for an occasional treat. To learn how to make pesto your way, you only need to remember this simple formula.

THE ALTERNATIVE PESTO RECIPE

Ingredients

  • 1 part nuts Pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts, pecans, or a mix.
  • 2 parts oil Olive oil is your best option, and should make up the largest percentage of liquid. But a nutritional boost of flaxseed oil, a complementary nut oil (like hazelnut) or any herb-infused oil you have lying around the kitchen is welcome.
  • 6-8 parts herbs or green leaves Think basil, mint, parsley, cilantro, arugula, kale, collards, spinach, chives, garlic scapes, rapini, beet greens, stinging nettles, etc. This is your opportunity to pack in the vitamins!
  • A bit of fresh garlic, lemon juice and zest, salt, and pepper Add according to personal taste. 
  • A handful of a sharp-flavored cheese Think Parmigiano Reggiano or Romano. You can omit this ingredient if you prefer a vegan pesto.
  • And something fun!* Sun-dried tomatoes, dried fruit (like figs), green peas, orange or lime zest, red bell pepper, cooked bacon, etc.

Directions

  1. In a food processor (or blender with tamper tool), combine the dry ingredients: nuts, herbs, fresh garlic, and lemon zest. Pulse several times until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
  2. Add in the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and *optional* cheese. Pulse a few more times until the solid pieces are very small (not pureed) and suspended in the oil.
  3. Scoop the pesto into your serving bowl.

*Note: If you choose to add “fun” ingredients, consider whether they would be best added during the dry pulse stage (i.e. sundried tomatoes, dried fruits, zest, etc.), the wet stage (i.e. peas and other mushy items) or simply stirred in at the end (i.e. chopped peppers, bacon, etc.).

To store your pesto in the fridge, seal it tightly in an airtight container and eat within 5-7 days. To preserve pesto even longer—its handiest culinary feature—spoon the pesto into an ice-cube tray and place it in the freezer. When it has completely frozen, pop out the pesto cubes and transfer them to a bag or Tupperware. The cubes will keep up to three months.

When you need pesto for a recipe, simply thaw as many cubes as required. This is a great last-minute solution for leftover pesto. However, in the event that you ambitiously make pesto for the sole purpose of freezing (meal prep anyone?) then omit the cheese. This ingredient does not freeze especially well, and is better stirred in after the cubes have thawed.

To serve with your homemade pesto:

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