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Why it Might Be Time to Stop Using Nuts in Your Pesto

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Before I'm even able to complete my thought, Google does it for me. As soon as I type, "How much water does it take," it finishes my sentence: "to grow one almond?"

We already know that almonds are a major contributor to California's drought—by some estimates almond growers use 10 percent of the state's water (at 1.1 gallon of water to yield one almond, this number starts to make sense). But there's another nut that may be worth cutting back on—and it's not for lack of water this time.

If you've ever made pesto—the bright green, Parmesan-laden sauce that graces late-summer and fall tables when basil's at its peak—you know to expect a kick in the wallet for one of its main ingredients: pine nuts. This makes sense, you reason—they're in high-demand, take years to mature, and are difficult to harvest. But that's only half of the story. The New York Times reported this morning that the demand for pesto has grown to the point where pine nuts have been outsourced from traditional producers (pinyon pines in North America and Italian stone pines) to the less-expensive Korean pine tree of Northeast Russia. This brings the price of pine nuts down, but at a much greater cost to the ecosystem. 

Would you believe this pesto doesn't use any nuts—or basil?

More: Here are 11 ways to get creative with your pesto.

Biologist Jonathan C. Slaght reports that in Russia, the Korean pine tree is a keystone species. Without it, the entire ecosystem—from the chipmunks who eat the pinenuts off the forest floor to the endangered Siberian tigers who eat the chipmunks' prey—are at risk. And collectors who rake the forest floor for fallen cones are making it entirely possible that the key nutrients will no longer be available to the animals who rely on them. One solution? Get the nutty component in pesto from seeds (or, hold the nuts and seeds altogether!). Pumpkin seeds (leftover from carving?) and sunflower seeds both make for rich pestos with the nuttiness of pine nuts—and a much better footprint. 

Swiss Chard Stalk Pesto with Pepitas

Makes 1 pint

6 ounces Swiss chard stalks (from about 1 pound of Swiss chard)
1 cup pepitas
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed
3 to 4 medium garlic cloves
3/4 cup packed parsley leaves
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or to taste
Zest of 1/2 lemon, grated on a Microplane

See the entire recipe (and save and print it!) here.

Do you feel that traditional pesto is irreplaceable? Tell us in the comments below!

Photos by James Ransom

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Tags: Tips & Techniques