Cooking with Lady Smokey: Herbs & Nuts

Basil plant

Basil tends to grow really well down South… We have an abundance in our garden and every time I walk out into the back yard it just screams, “MAKE PESTO!” A sauce originating from the Northern region of Italy, pesto traditionally consists of basil leaves, fresh garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan Reggiano, and olive oil- all crushed together with a mortar and pestle.

Pesto steps

Pecans are a Southern specialty. My Mom always sends me bags from South Carolina each year. So whenever I decide to make pesto on a whim, I tend to use pecans as my nut of choice as I always have some on hand. This makes for a perfect Southern pesto, in my opinion. I like to lightly toast the raw pecans first.

Against my better judgement and with fear of having a curse put on me by old Italian grandmothers everywhere, I usually end up throwing all ingredients in my blender rather than using the traditional mortar and pestle. First off, I don’t own a large enough mortar and pestle and secondly, I LOVE my green Kitchenaid blender that our good friends Shannon and Alice gave us as a wedding present so I jump at any chance to use it.

Kitchenaid Blender

I’ve tried all kinds of variations on pesto- from using different herbs such as cilantro or sage (sage pesto is delicious with pork!) or a combination of several herbs. Sometimes I also add some raw spinach which helps keep the pesto a vibrant green color and ups the nutritional value even more. I vary the nut. Sometimes I add cheese, sometimes lemon. Most recently, I tried making a healthier version with almonds. It went something like this…

Almond Pesto

  • 2-3 cups basil leaves
  • ½ Italian parsley leaves
  • ½ – 1 cup raw almonds, lightly toasted
  • 3-4 cloves raw garlic
  • 1 tsp lemon zest + ½ tsp lemon juice
  • ½ – ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil (may need a little more when mixing in the blender)
  • sea salt to taste

Blend all ingredients together to form a paste. You can add grated Parmesan Reggiano or Grana Padano if you wish. I always add the cheese later as the pesto will keep longer without it and sometimes, I don’t want the cheese in there, depending on the application of the pesto. I have found many different ways to incorporate pesto into our meals.

I think the most traditional ways to enjoy pesto are 1- simply mixed with pasta and 2- as a substitute for red sauce on pizza. Both are delicious.

Pasta with pesto and golden beets

Pasta with pesto and golden beets

Pesto on Pizza or Toast

Pesto makes a perfect pizza sauce or is great on little toasts as an appetizer.

Pesto makes a great layer for a lasagna…

Lasagna with Pesto

Pesto also makes a great marinade for meat.

Meat with Pesto

It can also turn grilled vegetables into a main dish!

Grilled Veggies Grilled Squash & Zucchini topped with pesto and grated Parmesan Reggiano

Grilled Squash & Zucchini topped with pesto and grated Parmesan Reggiano

You can also use pesto to make a zesty vinaigrette for your salads.

Salad with Pesto

And pesto isn’t just for dinner. We often mix a little in with our eggs for breakfast.

Breakfast eggs with pesto

And one of my favorite ways to use pesto this summer was making a pesto soup. I soaked a cup of dried great northern beans for a day in water. I sauteed some Vidalia onions, peppers, yellow squash, zucchini in olive oil. I added the beans, pesto, homemade roasted tomatoes and broth. I brought the soup to a boil and then simmered for about an hour. The pesto was a perfect soup base. I topped it with some finely grated Grana Padano cheese for a perfect Italian vegetable soup!

Pesto Soup

For more information on pesto, Saveur Magazine had an awesome feature on it recently. You can find that article here.

Unrelated to nuts and herbs… but totally in alignment with the end of summer in the South is the new Gillian Welch album, The Harrow & The Harvest. Over the last few years, Gillian has worked on several projects with partner David Rawlings and a few other collaborations but this is their first GW release in 8 years! It was well worth the wait. The song writing is, as always, very strong and honest, and the harmonies amazing. It seems like one of those classic, timeless albums that I will continue to listen to over and over.

I will end this post with this little video of Gillian and Dave explaining how they made their new cd cases…