Here is a very quick recipe that makes a good meal without investing too much by way of time or effort. Pesto is one of those things where there is a classic recipe – basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan and olive oil – but once you realise that a recipe is not the same as a rule, you find yourself looking at a whole world of options and variations.
I will say now that the photos are not up to scratch. It’s awful dark of an evening now, and I’m also experimenting with two loan cameras since my own one died. It’s taking a bit of getting used to – I’ll be ordering a replacement for myself this week…
Today’s pesto begins with the oven dried tomatoes from a few weeks ago – a big handful of them. This replaces the basil. Next, we have the standard parmesan and the slightly off piste smoked garlic. I swapped a lovely Scottish rapeseed oil for the olive oil and, finally, hazelnuts for the pine nuts.
Pine nuts are good, but expensive, and they don’t really burst with flavour. They give a nutty, waxy undertone to pesto, while the hazelnuts are much more up front with their flavour. They lay their cards on the table. They’re like, ‘We’re nuts, yo.’ Pine nuts are more like ‘We might be nuts, we might be seeds, we might be sweetcorn if you squint and it’s a bit dark. You work it out.’ I also feel like hazelnuts are more of a cupboard staple; pine nuts will go stale if you don’t use them up, and while anything will lose its flavour and go past its best if you leave it for long enough, it’s my experience that your average hazelnut has a better lifespan than your average pine nut.
There is one exception to the Rule of Stale, which is honey. It makes you wonder what the bees know.
Once I had the tomato pesto the way I liked it, I tossed in a few chopped black olives. Tomato and olive is a natural pairing, particularly when you’re talking about dried tomatoes where the savoury flavour is more pronounced. If you’re going to add the olives, go easy on the seasoning until afterwards. I wonder why ‘go easy on the seasoning’ has never been in a Health Education Board advert? It’s very snappy, if I do say so myself… I also added some basil oil, because it is pesto after all, and a wee drop of chili flakes right at the end.
Preamble over, here is the recipe:
- 2 tbsp hazelnuts
- handful dried tomatoes
- 2 tbsp grated parmesan
- salt and pepper
- 3 tbsp basil oil
- 2 tbsp rapeseed oil
- 4 olives, chopped
- 1/2 – 1 tsp chili
Start by toasting the hazelnuts in a dry frying pan. You can bung the heat right up to get them going, but keep an eye on them and be ready to turn it back down again if they start to burn. I usually pinch the skins off as they heat up, blister and loosen – this lets the surface of the nut get some colour and flavour, too. I can’t recommend that anyone else do the same thing, though, because its kind of a burn risk. The safest thing to do is toast them, let them cool a bit then rub them in a tea towel until the skins come right off. This is officially a faff, and you also don’t get the benefit of the colour on the nut itself. Plus you have to wash a tea towel. You can see why I choose to take the singed fingertips instead.
Once the nuts are toasted, put them in a food processor along with the tomatoes and garlic. Process until coarsely chopped, then add the cheese and just pulse to mix. If you prefer a smoother texture, go ahead and run the processor for longer – I prefer some texture. Then, add the oil and either pulse to mix, or remove from the food processor and stir in by hand. Stir through the olives and chili, and you’re done!
If you are organised, you can start the pasta boiling before you start with the pesto, and by the time the sauce is ready your pasta won’t be far behind. I had some wholewheat penne, so that’s what I had with my pesto. When you drain the pasta, don’t be too particular about it – aim to keep some of the pasta water in the pot. The starch in the water helps the pasta and sauce bind together. Another tip that I picked up from the most awesome Eggton is to throw in a little cheese before you add the sauce, so the sauce has ‘something to grab on to’. Enough said.
If you have made it through this post without sniggering at the excessive use of the word ‘nuts’ earlier, I salute you.