Ephemera

Please Don't Do This to Your Pesto

July 25, 2017

While researching the least-obtrusive substitute for pine nuts in pesto (I know you can add walnuts, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, pepitas—but I wanted something that would be quiet about its presence), I came across a Serious Eats discussion on the very question.

The forum has no shortage of pesto opinions and information (did you know sunflower seeds produce a grayish pesto?) and I was nodding my head along, amassing ideas, until I got to this answer (reminder of the question: "Pine nuts substitute for pesto?")...

For the purpose of anonymity, I've removed any identifying information for the user.

..."Dude, anything"?! Can anything really be the answer to this question?

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I admire the can-do attitude. I welcome recipe experimentation. I'm all about doing things "any which way" and "subbing in what you've got" (see: my path to this online discussion in the first place; see: this article I wrote a long time ago called "11 Ways to Get Creative with Pesto")—but within reason.

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Top Comment:
“I took an enormous bowl of pasta with pesto with the butter and it was the first thing gone on a table full of food and everyone wanted the recipe. P.S. Real butter not some substitute!”
— catherine C.
Comment

Forget about tradition, that's fine (I'm all for bucking tradition! I throw tradition to the wind! I eat lentil bolognese, happily!). But (often more important to the eating experience), don't forget about taste. Personally, I'm having a hard time conceptualizing how candied almonds or oven-roasted peanuts would, you know, taste good blended into a pesto—unless you doctor that pesto in many, many other ways and use it for a completely different application. And at that point, its relationship to pesto is tenuous at best. I'll add walnuts, almonds, even—at the expense of the color—sunflower seeds. But when the substitution completely alters the flavor profile, the texture, the way it can be used, is it still a substitution? (May I remind you of pea guacamole, a controversy stirred up one year ago this month?)

You cannot add honey-roasted peanuts to basil leaves, olive oil, and cheese and expect pesto (same goes for Yahtzee dice or chocolate-covered macadamia nuts).

I ask you: Where does creativity end and madness begin? When have we gone too far? With experimenting and playing and running around, screaming "WOOOOOOOOO!" with our arms in the air, waving wildly back and forth, like we're at some sort of underground rave, adding literally anything to our precious basil leaves?

Could this actually be a very good idea? I invite your opinions in the comments below.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally ran in July of last year. We're republishing it because, well, it's always a good idea to reignite some healthy, vigorous discussion!

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Sarah Jampel

Written by: Sarah Jampel

A (former) student of English, a lover of raisins, a user of comma splices. My spirit animal is an eggplant. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream. For that, I'm sorry.

153 Comments

Nicole D. June 11, 2019
I forgot garlic too. Nothing else, don’t make something that is so simple and delicious, fanciful.
 
Nicole D. June 11, 2019
Pesto is not pesto if you do not use: basil, pine nuts, olive oil, parmagiano reggiano. Stop exchanging basil with kale and pine nuts with walnuts. Stop the fusion cuz real pesto is the besto.
 
Inditoo June 18, 2019
Actually the dish originates from Romans who would add vinegar on to the base of garlic, nuts, oil & cheese. So even the traditional sauce you speak of is a variation of its original predecessor lost to history. It’s not fusion. Ingredients work together in different ways. Take the variation on caprese at Eleven Madison Park. The ingredients are utterly traditional, tomato, basil, olive oil. But the application is brilliant. Mozzarella ice cream, cherry tomato confit, basil leaves & flowers (actually a far more flavorful part of the plant), and a provencal granola. As long as the flavors work, who cares about the name you give to it? I almost guarantee I can make a Thai pesto as good as its Italian counterpart simply because many similar ingredients translate perfectly in that specific dish.
 
Inditoo June 10, 2019
Well if reordering ingredients and application makes the relationship to pesto “tenuous at best,” I guess that makes restaurants like Tickets, Werneckhof, Momofuku, Cosme purveyors of “tenuous” cuisine? Our restaurant served a ginger jalapeño sorbet this weekend as part of an entree special. Does that make its relationship to sorbet tenuous? Because we jiggered with traditional ingredients and application? No. Pesto is a name for a sauce that includes nuts, basil, oil & cheese. The great thing about three of those ingredients is precisely the vastness of their application. Just a simple change from traditional basil to Thai sweet basil can totally open up the possibility of the sauce into a new world. Olvera’s broccoli mole is still mole. It contains serrano, pepitas, cinnamon, cumino. There are no boundaries but flavor. Make those work and call it whatever you want. If you can make a crema that has no dairy that looks and acts like a crema call it a crema.
 
Liz August 10, 2017
I had an excess of Nasturtium leaves and made a pesto with them. Quite tasty.
 
Liz August 10, 2017
If you want the best Pesto ditch the machine and use a Mortar and Pestle.
The releasing of the Basil and other flavors far more intense when you do it old school. Do this right away.
 
chezcarol July 30, 2017
My favorite substitution is toasted almonds and half spinach, half basil :)
 
JIm July 30, 2017
I agree with substituting for the pine nuts. To me, they are not all that flavorful. I also agree with the addition of lemon juice and or zest. I have also omitted nuts altogether at times. It is hard to improve upon basil garlic olive oil and lemon as a combo, but almonds and especially pistachios are my favorites.
 
WHB July 26, 2017
With nut allergies in the house, I've used toasted sunflower seeds and pepitas. Once (in a pinch, desperate really) I used those roasted soy nuts!
 
J.D. S. July 30, 2017
Agreed on the toasted sunflower seeds (I use unsalted, and keep them in the fridge to avoid them going rancid) and pepitas (again roasted/toasted.)
 
Kathy D. July 26, 2017
Frankly, I find these discussions (by "purists") to be a waste of time. Dishes and methods develop and nothing is carved in stone. As far as I'm concerned, a pesto is any mixture with greens, nuts, garlic and oil and "pesto" is really only a definition. If someone puts together a ridiculous mélange, it's obvious. We could have this discussion about polenta (a dish, not an ingredient), for example....with people pontificating that it must be made from such and such corn meal from Italy. But, if you look at it's history, it was made from many basic grains historically: http://www.thekitchn.com/whats-the-difference-between-cornmeal-and-polenta-word-of-mouth-211404 . So, there you go.....
 
Windischgirl July 26, 2017
After suffering a smackdown last summer for wanting to make a "grilled ratatouille" and being told (by Food52-ers) that it couldn't be done because it didn't follow classical guidelines, I'm voting NO NO NO.
So if it strays from ingredients that traditionally grow in Italy, call it 'herb sauce'. DON'T call it 'pesto'.
BTW, my 'Grilled Vegetable Melange in the Provençal Style' was delicious.
 
Mark G. September 6, 2018
I have been making a grilled Ratatouille for more than a decade and everyone loves it. It is standard fare at neighborhood gatherings.
 
Erin A. July 25, 2017
Pesto is a crushed sauce, likely from the Italian "pestare"--to crush. With a mortar and pestle. Traditional may be basil, pine nuts, romano, olive oil, but as with any food that is made frequently, at-hand ingredients will inevitably appear. A sauce is recognizable as pesto when it has the traditional proportions of greens (or reds, like roasted peppers or sun-dried tomatoes), cheese, nuts, and olive oil, and is crushed or blended. The selection of which ingredients to use just requires some forethought into what works together. I've made it with wilted kale and pecans (only available nuts) with a lemon juice addition for brightness, with walnuts or sunflower seeds (toasted, both) when pine nuts were too expensive, etc. No one ever complained it wasn't "pesto," because it was. Trapanese pesto is my absolute favorite, and good for when there isn't quite enough basil in the garden for the all-basil variety. Just try to enjoy food and the generous cooks who make it for you--semantics are interesting but limiting.
 
arielcooks September 5, 2016
We've also enjoyed a garlic-and-walnut paste served in whole-wheat pitas with shredded lettuce. The cook said it was Middle Eastern. We really loved it!
 
Kathy D. September 5, 2016
That might be skordalia: http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/5681-skordalia-garlic-walnut-sauce
 
arielcooks September 5, 2016
It was prepared by an anthropologist who had enjoyed it in the Middle East (can't recall the country). It had no lemon or vinegar, and no breadcrumbs. The NYT skordalia rx looks delicious -- thanks!
 
Kathy D. September 5, 2016
You're welcome! I first had it with a dish called Mushakan (chicken with lots of onions & sumac)....delicious!!
 
Maria September 5, 2016
My dad is from Genova and has made pesto since he was a child. He always uses walnuts, which leads me to say that "traditional" Italian food is more about how your family prepared food and enjoying that food with your family and less about sticking to a recipe. So if someone wants to use honeyroasted peanuts, who cares? If they've found a way to make it taste good, regardless of what they have to add to it, good for them. That's their spin, and I will continue to enjoy my family's spin on pesto.
 
arielcooks September 4, 2016
Roasted peanuts in pesto? Sure, if, instead of olive oil, you use sesame oil, and instead of basil, you add cilantro, and instead of cheese, you throw in some minced chillies. Now employ the result to dress hot or cold Asian noodles. It's not actually "pesto," per se, but it is ... a delicious noodle dressing!
 
carol September 4, 2016
sounds good to me!
 
Babette's S. September 4, 2016
I've always been bordering on religious about using only pine nuts to replicate an authentic as possible native Ligurian pesto, but as many have noticed, pine nuts can be pretty expensive these days. I've used almonds or walnuts before, or with pine nuts to "stretch" them, but this past year I tried raw sunflower seeds and I was actually surprised how (to me) they seemed to replicate the taste and texture of pine nuts more than almonds or walnuts. I've never tried hazelnuts or any other type of nut in traditional basil pesto. Here's what Wikipedia says:
"Pesto is thought to have two predecessors in ancient times, going back as far as the Roman age. The ancient Romans used to eat a similar paste called moretum, which was made by crushing garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar together:[1][5] the use of this paste in the Roman cuisine is even mentioned in the Appendix Vergiliana, an ancient collection of poems where the author dwells on the details about the preparation of moretum.[5] During the Middle Ages, a popular sauce in the Genoan cuisine was agliata, which was basically a mash of garlic and walnuts, as garlic was actually a staple in the nutrition of Ligurians, especially for the seafarers.[1]
The introduction of basil, the main ingredient of modern pesto, occurred in more recent times and is first documented only in the mid-19th century, when gastronomist Giovanni Battista Ratto published his book La Cuciniera Genovese in 1863:[1]
"Take a clove of garlic, basil or, when that is lacking, marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch and Parmigiano cheese and mix them with pine nuts and crush it all together in a mortar with a little butter until reduced to a paste. Then dissolve it with good and abundant oil. Lasagne and troffie are dressed with this mash, made more liquid by adding a little hot water without salt. [6]"
 
suzybel63 September 4, 2016
I didn't have quite enough basil for my pesto so I topped it up with parsley. Oh, and pine nuts are ridiculously expensive where I live so I used ground almonds. The rest was the same. It was delish.
 
Maria T. September 4, 2016
If I make an avocado, oats, quinoa and nuts hamburger, just because it has the format of a hamburger, can I call it a Traditional American Hamburger?!
PESTO ALLA GENOVESE is a raw sauce made with Pinenuts, Basil, Garlic, Cheese and Olive Oil. If you want to make other variations of raw sauces go ahead but call them what they are: eg Spinach and Almond Pesto so you don't get the reader confused.
 
Kathy D. September 4, 2016
And you can still call it a pesto. The origins of cooking and combinations are never as carved in stone as people would like to believe. As KelleyJay said (6 posts ago): "So the Pesto Police have drawn the line? My family comes from Tuscany, Italy. They used walnuts in place of pine nuts over there and when they came here. They substituted other nuts, depending on what wa
 
Kathy D. September 4, 2016
(Continuing from above).....depending on what was available. Many different kinds of nuts and herbs are used in every region in Italy. Pesto Genovese is the pesto of the Genoa province. Who cares if someone wants to experiment with different ingredients? Not everyone can, or wants to, eat the same things. I say go ahead, have fun, and cross that line." As for your analogy with the "traditional American hamburger", it just isn't analogous, because these various "pastes" in Italy didn't originate in one place...they evolved, so that the basil/pine nut version is one of many, but the one that came to be well known....for whatever reason.
 
Steven W. September 4, 2016
I think there's a limit to adding things to a basic recipe. It has to retain some of it's original ingredients or you've simply created something new. The very nature of cooking is to use what you have and make it as good as you can--it doesn't even have to be the same way twice, in my opinion. I have NO problem calling it a Southern Pesto (it sounded good actually) but lets not get crazy! I stand by Julia. Everything in moderation--including adding too much "stuff."
 
shy August 16, 2016
ice cream yum
 
shy August 16, 2016
always a better cook