Basil is growing thick and leafy in many backyard gardens throughout the U.S. right now, which means many people are thinking about pesto. It's one of the more basic sauces you can make — in addition to basil, all you need is Parmesan or Romano cheese, a little garlic, some extra virgin olive oil and Italian pine nuts.
But if you've looked for them at the grocery store recently, you know those little Italian nuts sport a big price tag. Hungry bugs and warmer temperatures have severely diminished harvests. Now it's not uncommon to see them selling for $60 to $120 a pound.
Julia della Croce, author of Italian Home Cooking, says it's a global problem.
"Even in Italy, where they're also very expensive, they keep them under lock and key in the shops," she says. "So even the Italians can't afford them."
Asian pine nuts are more available, but even those crops are suffering. They're about half the price of the cheapest Italian pignolis, but della Croce says they are not as flavorful or aromatic. And buyer beware: The Asian-grown nuts are often sold in bulk but go rancid quickly because of their high oil content. Additionally, some consumers have also reported a long-lasting bitter aftertaste from eating them.
If you're feeling ambitious and live in the American West or Southwest, you could collect your own pinyon pine nuts on most public lands that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. You can harvest up to 25 pounds without a permit — but it's labor intensive, another factor that's driving up the price.
So what's a frugal cook to do if they want to make several batches of pesto? Della Croce turned to pistachios as a colorful — and still nutty — alternative. She shared a recipe for All Things Considered's Found Recipes series.
The idea came to her when she was reminiscing about a trip to Sicily. A particular area near Mount Etna grows a lot of pistachios.
"Very flavorful, delicious pistachios — and they were in everything," she says.
Instead of using pistachios as a wholesale replacement for the pine nuts, she added some almonds and cut the basil with parsley to tone down the sweetness. She topped it all off with some extra virgin olive oil and a little cheese.
"I came up with the most delicious pesto," she says. "In fact, I think I even prefer it to the original, and it's beautiful because the pistachios are green."
And when you're only paying $14 a pound for pistachios by comparison, it doesn't hit the pocketbook quite so hard.
Recipe: Fusilli With Pistachio Pesto
This pesto coats short macaroni cuts best, including fusilli, penne and gemelli. Fusilli are especially suitable because the coils trap the pesto nicely for an excellent ratio of sauce to pasta surface. Mind that when saucing pasta, it is essential to reserve about half a cup of the pasta cooking water before draining; you will need to blend a few tablespoons or possibly more with the pesto to loosen it up for an even coating.
Note: If the membrane of the pistachios don't peel off easily after rubbing them with your fingers, blanch them in boiling water for about 1 minute. Drain, shock in cold water, and dry the nuts in a paper towel. Toast them lightly, and when they cool, peel off any skins that haven't come off.
Serves 4 to 6
1/2 cup shelled, peeled, unsalted pistachios, plus a handful, roughly chopped, reserved for scattering over each portion
3 tablespoons lightly toasted, blanched almonds
1 packed cup fresh basil leaves
1/2 packed cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/2 cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground white or black pepper
1 pound imported Italian fusilli or other pasta mentioned in recipe headnote
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano or grana padano cheese, plus additional for the table
In a food processor, combine the pistachios, almonds, basil, parsley, olive oil, salt and pepper. Process, pulsing every few seconds until the mixture is blended but still has a slightly grainy consistency. Take care not to over-grind to avoid a paste-like result. Use a rubber spatula to transfer the pesto to a small mixing bowl. Press plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pesto and chill until you are ready to use it. For best results, use it within several hours of preparing.
If you need to make it far in advance, proceed as above, transfer the pesto to a freezer container and cover with a thin film of olive oil; press plastic wrap directly on the surface and seal the container. When ready to use, thaw and continue with the recipe as below.
Bring 5 quarts water to a rolling boil. Add the salt and the pasta at the same time. Cook precisely as indicated on the package directions. Just before draining, set aside 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta; while it is still dripping wet, return it to the pan. Add the pesto and the 3 tablespoons grated cheese, blending well with a wooden spoon and working in a few tablespoons of the reserved cooking water or more, if needed, to loosen up the sauce and coat the pasta evenly. Transfer to individual plates and scatter the chopped pistachios over each. Pass additional grated cheese at the table.
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