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?")...
..."Dude, anything"?! Can anything really be the answer to this question?
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"; see: the weirdness of every single meal I make for myself))—but within reason.
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!