Pine nuts aren't really nuts, but just about everyone is nuts for them. Found in the cones of pine trees, these buttery seeds are the darling of cuisines here, there and everywhere. High in monounsaturated fats - the same heart-healthy fats in nuts and olive oil - pine nuts yield up to 14 grams of protein per serving. And get this: eating a handful can actually suppress appetite since they're packed with pinolenic acid, a substance that sends a "full" signal to the brain.
Cultivated for more than 6,000 years in Europe, pine nuts have been harvested from wild trees for far longer than that. In fact, most of the North American pine nut crop still comes from uncultivated trees, harvested by hand by the Shoshone and Hopi tribes. Grown in Europe and China as well, these small, ivory-coloured seeds (in Arabic, they're known as snobar) are at home on many of the world's tables: in Lebanon, toasted in butter for cinnamon-scented rice; crushed with sesame, chestnuts, peanuts and dried apricots to fill Chinese mooncakes; roasted, ground and brewed for coffee in New Mexico; mixed into porridge in Korea.
And then there's pesto, Italy's simple answer to: what shall I put on my pasta tonight? "Pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, basil. Nothing else!" says Lucia Burgio Farah, plucking leaves from two basil plants and dropping them into a colander. Burgio, who teaches Italian cooking classes in her Al Manasir home in Abu Dhabi, is demonstrating a family-of-four portion, but when she makes pesto for friends she works in industrial-size quantities: "I need eight to 10 basil plants," she laughs.
Though homemade pesto has been a long-time favourite in my household, too, I'm intrigued by Burgio's tips and methods. She doesn't toast her pine nuts before pulverizing them, a step I've always assumed was essential. "If you toast them for pesto, they get too dry. You need the oil for pesto; the more oil the better." Surprising, too, is the way she plucks her basil plants. "Usually people take the leaves off one by one. In Italian, we say, 'Prendere il fioretto!' Take the bunch, the whole top cluster of leaves. Otherwise you miss the young, baby leaves and bits of the stems, which, again, lend moisture."
But isn't something missing in her short list of ingredients? What happened to the Parmesan? "A lot of home cooks add the Parmesan with the other ingredients," Burgio admits, but she prefers grated Parmesan added to the pasta when it's served. This way if she's not using all the pesto in one go, it can last up to two weeks in the fridge. Despite growing up in an Italian household, Burgio ate pesto for the first time when she was in her early twenties, while visiting a friend in Liguria one summer. "My friend's family served a fixed menu: cold cuts, bruschetta and trofie with pesto."
Trofie, she explains, are little macaroni twists, which have nooks and crannies where pesto can deliciously take up residence. Hard to find in Abu Dhabi, Burgio recommends penne rigate or fusilli instead. "They have tiny ribs so the pesto gets stuck in there." @A&L-SubheadDivider:Basil Pesto Live basil plants can be found at most large grocers. When cooking pasta, drain it quickly and briefly, remembering to reserve a bit of the pasta water to dilute the pesto. Serves 4.
@Body-SubheadNew:Ingredients 459g pasta 2 basil plants 30g pine nuts 5 cloves garlic, peeled 60ml extra-virgin olive oil pinch ground black pepper 2-3tbsp reserved pasta water Parmesan cheese, grated @Body-SubheadNew:Method Boil the pasta until al dente. Reserve 3tbsp of the pasta water. Pluck the leaves from the basil plants and place in a colander. Rinse the leaves briefly under water. Place the pine nuts and garlic in a blender or food processor (I found the latter worked best) and pulse until creamy and totally crushed. Add the basil leaves and blend on low speed.
While the basil is macerating, add the olive oil in a steady stream. Stop and scrape down the sides of the blender or processor bowl with a rubber spatula. Then blend or process at high speed until basil leaves are blended, but still in tiny pieces. Add the black pepper. If using right away, stir into the cooked pasta with 2-3 tbsp of reserved pasta water. Add the grated Parmesan. If saving for later, place the pesto in an airtight container and cover the top with a thin layer of olive oil. When serving, soften/dilute with warm pasta water.