I love the smell of fresh sweet basil; one waft captures images of warm summer days, luscious ripe juicy tomatoes draped with fresh basil leaves accompanied by a crisp cool glass of wine. Opening up a jar of pesto can capture this image, even on the coldest winter day, an ideal sauce or marinade for a quick weekday supper. Of course, one of the main ingredients for traditional pesto is cheese so this is usually a no go area for me, unless I can find a jar in a “free from” range – fairly rare in the UK, non-existent here in India.
Recently I came across a bunch of sweet basil in the local vegetable store and just craved for pesto. There are many kinds of basil; Asian basil has a quite different flavour to the Medterranean type, harsher and reminiscent of cloves which doesn’t work quite so well on pasta, so finding sweet basil was a real boon. Basil is full of nutrient goodies and the oil in the leaves carry anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties so not only taste good but are good for you too. One agent, eugenol, inhibits the enzymes that mediate the inflammatory cascade and can provide symptomatic relief in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowel disease. Basil is also packed full of vitamin A which is essential for healthy eyes, skin and mucous membranes as well as vitamin K, essential for blood clotting and strengthening bones. Not only that but basil contains good amounts of iron, manganese and potassium, essential for healthy functional cells. So much in one leaf!
Traditionally, pesto is made with pine nuts, but these are also hard to find here and always seem to be rancid. On a recent trip to Kashmir, I was so excited to find a box of pine nuts, guaranteed not to have turned rancid, or so I was told. When I returned home and eagerly opened the box, I discovered that was because they were still in their shell. Peeling 100g of pine nuts is a seriously boring job!! So a nutrient popping alternative is walnuts (I also bought a massive bag of these, ready shelled!). People often shy away from nuts, fearful of their high fat content. But walnuts contain unsaturated fats and fabulous amounts of omega 3 alpha-linolenic acid, one of the few plant based foods to have this essential fatty acid. Omega 3 fats keep your heart and brain healthy – a walnut looks a bit like a brain and really is brain food. They also have fabulous amounts of the micro-mineral manganese, essential for blood sugar control, cellular energy and bone growth, and other minerals such as magnesium, copper and phosphate as well as a whole range of vitamins.
So for the pesto you need:
2 cups of basil leaves
1/3 cup of walnuts, lightly toasted and cooled
3 cloves of garlic crushed
1/2 cup of olive oil
salt to taste
Firstly place the walnuts in your blender or grinder and blitz for a couple of seconds. Add the basil and garlic and blitz again until broken down. Then add the olive oil a bit at a time, blitzing in between until you get the consistency you want and season with salt to taste. That’s it! Same as normal pesto, just no cheese! Because there are no additives and preservatives apart from the salt, the bright fresh green colour fades pretty quickly, but it still keeps well in the fridge for a few days, or you can freeze it in small quantities if you want, but I think this takes out some of the active ingrediants and lowers it’s healing properties. Of course then you can do whatever you want with it – spoon in to pasta, add more oil and use as a salad dressing or marinade or even a topping for a baked potato.
Dairy free, super healthy and delicious – what’s not to like?