Parsley and Walnut Pesto

Mike and I were delighted when Peef and Lo from the blog Burp! “Where Food Happens” invited us to do a guest post for their summer herb series.  Then Lo, sweet and well meaning lady though she might be, did the unthinkable.

She asked if I had a favorite herb that I wanted to talk about.

Horror or horrors!  The panic and hysteria instantly set it!  The thought of choosing just one herb as a favorite was almost too much for me. Even thinking about the suggestion makes me start to quake with indecision.  I mean, I could discuss my top nine, perhaps, but then I’d veer off track and start going off about numbers ten, eleven twelve……

This kind of thing is the Sophie’s Choice of the culinary world.  Try, just for a minute; can you imagine only having one herb in your culinary arsenal for the rest of your life?  I squeezed my eyes tightly enough that they started to water as I breathed deeply and considered my options.

I love basil.  I mean, I really, REALLY love basil.  I’m fairly certain that as a main-flavor herb, basil is likely the most popular player on this site.  But then again, could I really be happy in a world without dill? That would be like a world without love.  The days would seem grayer and the cucumber pickles would taste like sorrow.   Hey-oh, but what would spring be without delicate fresh tarragon scenting everything from asparagus and strawberry salad to mussels in a Pinot Grigio sauce?  Clearly I was unable to pick based on preference, and if I don’t have a clear winner I always go for the underdog.  I’m the person at a horse race, yelling, “GO GLUE-STICK, GO!!!!  YOU CAN DO IT!!!  I ALMOST BARELY SEE YOUR LIMP AT ALL!!!”  Oh, but the best part is that I’ll mean it.

Without question, the underdog of the herbisphere (new word, whee!) has got to be parsley.  Poor ol’ parsley gets such a bad rap, when really it’s one of the most widely used and versatile herbs that we’ve got!  More importantly, I feel strongly that you should all agree with me about the awesomeness of parsley, including that guy over there who just crinkled his nose and said, “Parsley? Really?”  Yes, really.  And if you need convincing, it could be that my exceptionally long winded ode to parsley has been posted on Burp

As for our blog, I bring you a bright and refreshing parsley pesto, which is delicious as a simple pasta sauce, spread on crostini with a dollop of riccota, slathered all over a hunk of beef before slow roasting it in the oven, and so forth.  The other thing that makes this a welcome change from traditional pesto is that it is dirt cheap to make.  Who needs basil when you can use parsley, the bastard hay seed cousin?  And really, when pine nuts cost enough that you need to sell your spleen to afford a small jar, aren’t walnuts looking better and better each day?  Verdant and earthy, lightened by lemon and salty Greek cheese, this affordable pesto is a bold change from the traditional pesto that we know and love.

Parsley and Walnut Pesto

Makes ~ 2.5 cups

  • 1 large bunch parsley (6-7 cups of leaves, loosely packed)
  • 1.25 cups walnut pieces, roughly chopped
  • 1 lemon (2 tsp zest + juice of whole)
  • 4 medium garlic cloves
  • 1/2 – 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 50 g kefalograviera cheese (1.5 cups grated and loosely packed) *
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

*Kefalograviera is a firm, salty sheep milk cheese from Greece.  Although it is popular at the Greek table, this cheese was introduced to the market relatively recently and earned it’s name because the flavor is somewhat in between kefaotyri and graviera.  If you cannot find kefalograviera but have access to Greek cheeses, kefalotyri would be a good substitute.  If that’s still too much of a stretch, pecorino romano is a fine readily available substitute.

Spread the chopped walnut pieces in a large, flat bottomed skillet set over medium high heat.  Shake the pan occasionally and let the walnuts toast until they are fragrant and a slightly deeper brown color.  Immediately take the walnuts out of the pan and set them aside to cool.  If you leave them in the pan they’ll just continue cooking, the poor vulnerable little dears, and 5 minutes of ambient heat is all it takes to burn your nuts (frat boys be warned).

Separate the parsley leaves and discard the main stems.  You don’t have to be too vigilant about this because a little bit of tender stem is fine and will all be delightfully minced in the food processor, but the leafier the better.  Wash the leaves well and spin them completely dry.

Put the parsley into the bowl of fairly large food processor along with the garlic, peeled of course (and chopped roughly if you don’t entirely trust your food processor’s capabilities), lemon zest and juice, pepper and salt.  Pour in half a cup of your favorite nutty and rich extra virgin olive oil.

Whiz the mixture until it is fairly well pureed with no discernible garlic chunks.  Add the toasted walnuts.  Finely grate the cheese and add it to the processor as well.

Pulse the mixture in 1-2 second stints until the walnut is finely chopped but still somewhat visible.  The pesto should be somewhat thick but quite spoonable, so add more olive oil as you see fit until you have a texture that you’re happy with.  If you packed the parsley very loosely or you like your pesto extra thick, the original half cup of oil is fine.  If you like it just a bit thinner, as I do, pulse the beast while drizzling in a bit more oil until you’re satisfied.  Check the seasoning again and add salt and pepper as you see fit.  Remember though, if you’re planning to use your pesto as a pasta sauce, it’s difficult to over-season it.  If anything, even a slightly salty pesto can end up a bit bland when it’s spattered thinly about on doughy noodles.

The lemon and parsley make this a brighter, lighter and fresher pesto than you might be used to, while the walnuts lend a rich, earthy and intensely nutty flavor.

Oddly, the closest flavor that this pesto is reminiscent of is actually Lebanese food.   The toasted nuts, garlic and parsley actually evoke falafel with lemony tahini (sesame sauce) and a sprinkle of fresh chopped parsley over top.  Which, as you can imagine, is far from an unpopular flavor combination in this house.

To play on the Middle Eastern flair, I thinned this pesto with a bit of cooking water before tossing it on whole wheat pasta with no adornment other than a generous bowl of fresh picked cherry tomatoes from the garden and a black olive or two for kicks.

If your summer herbs this year include a flourishing parsley patch, I strongly suggest that you think about all this delightful herb has to offer.  From condiments to salads, teas to zingy sauces, and even a vibrant and bright pesto if you feel like taking a chance.  Next time that you see a wilted parsley sprig on the side of your entree for garnish, scowl with disdain! It deserves so much more attention than that.

Anyway, if you haven’t been following their Summer 2010 Herb Series over at Lo and Peef’s house, go now! Go, before it’s too late!  Summer won’t last forever, and neither will the fresh herbs.