Here in Texas, nuts are everywhere. Yes, I do mean the kind that grow on trees and come in shells. It’s the land of the pecan, of course, and they are everywhere, mostly wrapped in brown sugar and eggs and baked inside a nice, crisp pastry shell.
As you all know, I’m cooking at the Central Market cooking schools, which are tucked upstairs in the gorgeous Central Market grocery stores dotted throughout Texas. I cannot tell you what a pleasant, professional, fun and sometimes hilarious experience this is. It isn’t my first tour with Central Markets – I’ve taught several times at their stores and the reason I return is because they have a class act.
Part of the class is the basic southern hospitality that oozes from everyone once you get into the south. Just take a look at this sign which sits outside the Central Market in Austin. I”m a northerner and we’re all well brought up and nice. But in the south people are simply…gorgeous. The men hold the door open for you, the women are warm and strong and funny, everyone calls everyone else Ma’am or Miss (Miss…imagine that?!) or sir. Call it all old-fashioned, maybe it is. But it’s also very sweet and easy living. At least for a northerner like me. Just as I love being called “Cara” when I’m in Italy, and “Cherie” when I’m in France, I just love being called “Honey” when I’m in the south.
So, back to Central Market. The runway-length aisles are laden with so much…stuff! From organic potato chips to rice cakes, acres of fresh corn to little tiny pots of delicately raised basil, to hunks of beef and row upon row of very large chicken breasts. I have found the Leblanc nut oils I love, the fleur de sel de Guérande I cannot live without, nuts of every kind and description both salted, sweetened, and raw. I am always just the tiniest bit in awe of the abundance I find when I return to the U.S., as though that notion is part of the national creed, which perhaps it is.
I’ve been teaching recipes from Nuts in the Kitchen of course, and I settled on a menu long ago that has turned out to be not only crowd-pleasing, but utterly delicious, even for me who is tasting elements of it each night. I particularly love the pesto with its crunch of walnuts and pine nuts, its depth of Niçoise or Nyons olives, and the herbal scent of plenty of fresh basil leaves. Lucini extra virgin olive oil (try this brand if you haven’t – it hails from Tuscany, and is the freshest, most grassy-green olive oil I’ve tasted in a long time) rounds it out, and I must say it is simply wonderful on a round of freshly toasted bread.
One thing Central Market doesn’t stock is kitchenware, so I’ve had a tough time finding a mortar and pestle to make the pesto. I could make it in a food processor, but the texture just isn’t right so I’ve resorted to making it on the chopping board and I’m here to say the result is sublime. It turns out full of toothsome texture, the way it is supposed to be. It is perfect for the blazing temperatures we’re experiencing, too, because it’s refreshing (especially with one of those Texas margarita’s on the side). I highly recommend you try it. Here is the recipe, with a little nut tip included.
NUT AND OLIVE PESTO
NOTE: To pit the olives, place them on a work surface, cover them with parchment or waxed paper and whack them firmly yet gently with a rolling pin. This splits them open, making the pit easy to remove. In general, olives are salty so the additional salt isn’t necessary. When looking for olives, if you cannot find those mentioned below, use a generic French olive.
1 clove garlic, green germ removed if necessary
Generous pinch sea salt
1-1/2 cup (8 ounces;250g) top-quality black olives, such as Lucques or Olives de Nyons,
pitted, coarsely chopped
½ cup (50g) walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup (30g) pine nuts, coarsely chopped
1 cup (15g) fresh basil leaves
9 tablespoons (140ml) extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt – optional
1. In a mortar, pound the garlic with the salt until it is a fine puree. Add the olives, the nuts, and the basil and mix until the mixture is homogeneous but still has much texture. Slowly mix in the oil. Season to taste with salt if necessary, and serve.
1-1/2 cups (375ml)
If you find two nuts in one shell where there should be only a single nut (almonds, brazil nuts, hazel nuts, etc.), eat one of them and throw the other over your head as you make a wish. After you have made your wish, you should not speak to anyone until you can answer “yes” to a question, or your wish won’t come true.