mains, salads

basil + walnut pesto.

It’s the week of quick posts, people. I would hate for you to have to wait for practical tips on things, like how to make individually-sized Guinness chocolate cake in muffin tins. Or how to make enough pesto to feed the population of China, which is what I did yesterday. My garden has had its ups and downs this spring and summer, but the basil crop? Stellar the entire season. It has proliferated all over the place, even in the unbearable midsummer heat and subsequent drought, and I’ve made caprese salad after marinara trying to use it up. I’m proud to say that none of it has gone to waste, but it’s taken some work to keep it under control. When i saw on the news that a pretty snappy cold front was coming in today, I knew something had to be done with the rest of my beloved herb.

 Yesterday, I made a gajillion batches of freezer-bound pesto. Now you can too.

I know some of you are still living in warmer climates, but it’s going to be cold soon, and you can’t waste perfectly lovely basil. It’s cruel. The recipe for the pesto is my own, and I think it’s a pretty versatile one. It’s garlicky, but in a very background and unsharp way, and I’ve found (by trial and some pretty gross error) a delightful balance of herb to walnut flavor. And yes, I use walnuts; they’re cheaper to get than pine nuts, and when I’m freezing pesto, walnuts seem to hold up better. Feel free to make this pine nuts if you wish; when I do, I substitute them using the same measurements.

 You’ll also notice the lack of parmesan cheese in this recipe. Taking the parmesan out of the equation makes this recipe better for several reasons. First, it’s cheaper; good parmesan can be pricey. Second, it’s less work; fresh grated always works best, but who wants to grate ten thousand cups of parmesan? Not me. Third, it freezes so much better if you leave the cheese out of it. Cheese doesn’t freeze well, and there’s a weird textural quality to a thawed pesto that has cheese added to it.

 Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it allows your pesto to be a little more versatile. Drape it over pasta with a little parm over top? Great. making pesto lasagna (like I will for you, in the coming weeks)? Perfect; you don’t have to worry about cheese control on an already-cheesy dish. Throwing this on a sandwich? it’s much more saucy and much less pasty sans parmesan.

 I have only one rule here, because even the measurements on this one will be guidelines, and I want you to tailor it to how you like it: Use quality ingredients. You’re working with a gorgeous herb here that’s packed with flavor, and you don’t want to kill it by drowning it in inferior olive oil, bad garlic, rancid walnuts or that weird powdery pepper you can buy. Who uses that anyway? Disposable pepper and sea salt grinders are everywhere, and they cost next to nothing; avail yourself of them. Make sure your garlic is fresh – it should feel heavy for its size and look smooth and tight on the outside – and don’t buy off-brand or ‘clearance’ walnuts, for heavens’ sake. Your finished pesto will be so much more than the sum of its parts, so do not skimp.

 And about the olive oil; most of you probably have a favorite, if you do a fair amount of cooking. Use one that has an olive flavor to it (no ‘light’ stuff, please) and is of decent quality. Olive oil doesn’t have to cost a fortune to be good; I use Marca Verde Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and get big bottles of it from Sur La Table. It’s very affordable: a  33.8 ounce bottle costs $9.95. I use it for everything and I make a special trip to get it, because it’s my favorite for things like this, and for most everything else. It’s good to have a go-to olive oil; it’s also good when that olive oil can only be found at your favorite kitchen store so you’re ‘forced’ to go there and pick it up.

I hope this pesto saves you lots and lots of time with your leftover garden basil. It’s so easy, the only thing you’ll be doing is shoving everything into a processor, hitting “go,” and drizzling a little olive oil in. So little effort for such a delicious thing, really.

Garden, I’ll miss you: you did a nice job this year, and currently you’re growing what hopefully will be some pretty awesome Brussels sprouts, but we’ll see.

Adapted from countless attempts at making a pesto I truly love. This one hit the mark.


  • 3 cups packed basil leaves, washed and dried thoroughly*
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 3/4 to 1 cup good-quality olive oil (depending on how thick you like your pesto; i lean more towards the 3/4 cup mark)
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • fresh ground pepper, to taste

*and I am so serious about washing your basil, especially if it’s coming from your garden. I’m sure you realize this, but there could be literally anything on those leaves. Bugs. Dirt. COCOONS. Eggs of bugs. And once they’re ground up in the food processor, then hey, you’re just eating dead ground-up bug eggs. And I know at least one of you has already done that. Wash and dry, people.

Add your garlic and walnuts to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse for a few seconds until ground up slightly. Add your basil and pulse again, pushing it down as needed (basil leaves are light, and some hang around the top and don’t catch right away). When everything is processed, take a spatula or spoon and scrape around the perimeter of the bowl to catch any chunks of walnut around the edges. Pulse again until everything is incorporated.

With the motor running and using a slow, even pouring motion, drizzle your olive oil into the top of the processor. Use as much as you wish; 3/4 cup is usually what I end up going with, which will give you a smooth, non-pasty result. When your pesto has reached the desired consistency, season with salt and pepper to taste.

To store:

This keeps in the fridge for a week or so, but freezing it was my goal here. The most practical way to do this is to temporarily commandeer an ice cube tray and pour the pesto in, using either a squeezie bag to shoot it into the cavities, or a spoon. Use a small spatula to even out the tops prior to freezing. I do this in batches, because there’s no need to rush; store the pesto-in-waiting tightly covered in your refrigerator while you freeze batches of it. Place in freezer storage bags when finished with your cubes.

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  • Reply Jen @JuanitasCocina October 5, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    I’ll take some of the pesto off your hands if you need me to. Because I’m afraid of making my own pesto now. Bugs and all…

    • Reply shannon October 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      i know! when i pulled out the leaf with the cocoon, i was all “whoa, neat!” and then i was all “aaagh! i almost ate a dormant bug!” so it was a big range of emotions. i flipped over every. single. leaf after that.

  • Reply movita beaucoup October 6, 2012 at 4:24 am

    It’s true. I ate a lot of moths. And over the summer TWO moths appeared in the shower with me. I think they came… out of me.

    Why haven’t I been freezing pesto? And why didn’t we grow basil this year? Sigh. Big mistake. Your pesto sounds delightful – I’m lovin’ the addition of walnuts. I like pine nuts and all, but not enough to re-mortgage my house. Walnuts have a nice meaty flavour- perfect for pesto.

    I’ll miss your garden too. We had a good run…

    • Reply shannon October 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm

      every time you see a moth in your near vicinity; you’ll wonder.

      thank you! meaty; that’s the perfect way to describe walnuts. I make small batches with pine nuts, but not when i’m sitting on a tree’s worth of basil. i’ve grown pretty fond of the walnuts by now. why haven’t you been freezing pesto? too busy making awesome pastries.

      my garden sends its regards.

  • Reply Carol Anne @ Rock Salt October 6, 2012 at 6:09 am

    Walnuts! I love it. I’m working on a recipe with hazelnuts. As I type this I picture myself in a lab coat, with all science equipment in the kitchen. The reality is far more mundane.

    • Reply shannon October 8, 2012 at 3:38 pm

      hazelnuts, you say! how exciting! you know, i kinda picture you in a lab coat messing with science equipment. I picture myself that way too, but don’t we all. 🙂 i like to picture myself surrounded by towers of books, bunsen burner to my side, smoke inexplicably coming from somewhere. so, same. 🙂

  • Reply Kim Bee October 6, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Is it bad that I want to to just funnel this right in my mouth. Freaking amazing. I need a garden. I had one at my last house and sometimes I just want to go back there and steal some veggies and the white picket fence my hubs built around it.

    • Reply shannon October 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm

      it’s not at all bad, kim. because i sat here and ‘taste-tested’ every batch, even though they were all the exact same. just to make sure, you know? 🙂 gardens are work, but man they’re fun. you should make one next year! you’ve already got the experience (lucky; i was a semi-beginner), and i’m sure you’d have lots of basil to turn into pesto.

  • Reply natalie October 7, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    i’ve never used walnuts in my pesto…. annnnd now i’m craving pesto, but i can’t keep anything alive in my garden… not even if my life depended on it. lol

    it’s never even occured to me to leave the cheese out of pesto, but now that i think of it, that is probably exactly what i need to do since i can never get the full “oomph” of the basil that i want, it’s always slightly muted by the cheese!

    and i totally recognized the SLT olive oil as i was scrolling down … fyi (if memory serves me correct) the Trader Joes spanish olive oil tastes very similar, but costs like $5 ! i quit buying the marca verde when i quit working at SLT … plus i prefer a more “buttery” oil, if that makes sense(?) maybe i’m crazy…

    i can’t ween myself off of the SLT vinegars though…. pricy habit. have you purchased any of them?

    • Reply shannon October 9, 2012 at 2:15 pm

      wait. one. MINUTE.
      did you just tell me you used to work at my favorite kitchen store? why do i feel like i didn’t know that? i’m making a note about TJ’s spanish olive oil because i go there a bunch also, and i’ve never even looked since i have the Marca Verde habit going, but TJ’s is closer; i’ll check it out! and no; i’ve never actually purchased any of the SLT vinegars, but i’ve looked longingly at them. sometimes you just know you’ll get addicted to something, soooo…are they good? don’t tell me. no, tell me; i should know.
      you know, it never occurred to me to not put cheese in my pesto either, but in researching the best ways to freeze batches of it, it seemed to be something people did to make it work. i thought about it and realized that adding it back in when you used it would be easy, and then when i tasted it? GREAT WITHOUT THE CHEESE. i may never add cheese again! same reason; more basil oomph to it minus the cheese flavor. it makes it much more “fresh” tasting, which i like too.
      and i highly recommend walnuts in pesto: sometimes it seems like the picky eater set seems to like it better than pine nuts, because it gives it a more ‘familiar’ flavor? i’ve also seen people use other types of nuts, but i haven’t ventured beyond walnuts yet. 🙂

    • Reply shannon October 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm

      PS: i wonder if we’re in “rival gangs” now: being as you worked at SLT and i worked at Wms Sonoma? 🙂 are we not supposed to be friends anymore? That would bum me out.

      although i know you have a WS there, so tell me: do the SLT and WS crews get along, or no? it was my experience when i worked at WS that our staff was happy to refer people to SLT if we didn’t carry a particular thing in store, so it didn’t seem to be as tense as i imagined it (in my head, where i imagine apron-clad women armed with owl spatulas and All-Clad pans lined up ready to brawl.) . is it that way all over/in reverse?

      • Reply Natalie October 9, 2012 at 6:47 pm

        NO WAY!! YOURE A WS GIRL?!


        More like FRIENEMIES!!! DISCOUNTS FOR EVERYONE YAAYYY 😉 sometimes I think about going back to SLT part time just for the sweet sweet discount. Our SLT didn’t have a WS by it so unfortunately I’m of no help in that department. I never liked SLT til I started working there. I used to describe it as “WS… If it was hit by an earthquake. And a tornado” but those suckers have just about anything you could ever want or need for the kitchen! WS is much prettier, but also more limited. But I wouldn’t kick either of them out of bed, ya know?

  • Reply Emma October 9, 2012 at 5:01 am

    I always bring my basil inside and try to make it last into the winter months. It struggles along, looking anemic and bedraggled. And it will maybe grow two more leaves in that time. That may be crueler than just letting it go outside, huh?

    Pesto is my favorite. I have probably make it with six or seven different green things, three or four cheeses, and three or four kinds of nuts this year. And it is always holy wow DELICIOUS.

    Good work using up that basil!

    • Reply shannon October 9, 2012 at 2:43 pm

      you know, i tried bringing in my herbs a few years ago (when i had them in more portable window boxes) to make them last longer, with similar results. I felt like i could never find a window to do it justice, and they weren’t the same after coming inside. I’ve given up on the idea and just really do my level best to get things used up/harvested/frozen now. I have HUGE bags of sage and rosemary in the freezer, and i’ll use that all winter long, but i’ve never been able to do much with basil save for huge pesto batches. I feel like it’s a quick (and joyful) sendoff.

      look at you being all experimental and stuff with the pesto! i need to venture out into the different greens/nuts arena. do you have one you particularly recommend? I’d like to try something a little different at some point.

      🙂 thanks. i feel so farmer-ish right now.

      • Reply Emma October 10, 2012 at 3:44 pm

        I like arugula and walnuts quite a bit. Spinach works too, but arugula is so feisty, I love it!

        Ooops. We had a hard frost the other night, and I forgot to dig up my basil and bring it in. Lost it:(

        • Reply shannon October 10, 2012 at 4:37 pm

          i have ALWAYS wanted to try arugula in a pesto; it IS so feisty! i’m the only one i know of who really enjoys arugula-based salads; everyone else is always all “oh it’s so peppery” and i’m all “YESS!” about it. i bet the walnuts work really well with that. that’s gonna be my next pesto.

          oh no! it’s a sad day for Maine basil. you never know these days when the first frost will hit, and basil is done for when it does. i’m taking a moment to remember our summer gardens.


  • Reply elizabeth October 14, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    The husband hates walnuts (mild allergy), so they are sadly a no-go, but I love basil and pistachio pesto. (Personally, I LOVE walnuts, so this tends to be one of the things I make for myself when the husband is traveling). Thank you for the reminder to make this in a few weeks when he’s away for the middle of the week!

    • Reply shannon October 15, 2012 at 3:19 pm

      basil and pistachio! what a great combo, and one i’ve never tried; definitely adding that to my to-do list, elizabeth. I love walnuts too, so i’d have a difficult time staying away from them all the time if i were you. cheers to the husband being gone (temporarily, and if only because walnuts get to make an appearance!) 🙂

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