I’ve been RAW for 7 days now. I was prepared to say the struggle’s been real, but the truth is it hasn’t been that real. I haven’t felt hungry or deprived. I haven’t gotten sick of spinach or nut butter or smoothies. I haven’t (like my boyfriend) lapsed into an irritable bordering on violent state of angsty teenage-hood in the absence of meat. I have, however, massively missed cooking. I’ve missed the smells of food cooking in the kitchen – mostly of simmering onions and boiling pasta. I miss the warmth of soup. I miss crust. I miss the transformation of food that takes place when we invite our dear friend HEAT along to the party.
The idea behind an all raw diet is that when food is cooked above a certain temperature (118°F) vital protein nutrients called enzymes become inactivated. The theory also goes that when you cook the enzymes out of your food, your organs have to work extra hard to create their own enzymes to help your body digest what you’ve put in it. This is why you may have heard promises of a big energy rush on a raw diet (my vegan chef friend told me I’d be touching god come day 7).
As with any restrictive diet, there are plenty of articles that counter these arguments. These go like…enzymes found in plants are for plants, not humans – they work on photosynthesis and germination, not human digestion. Even better, if by eating raw we protect those delicate little plant enzymes by not exposing them to heat, as soon as they come into contact with our stomach acid – with a pH so high it can burn holes in wood – they’re destined to meet an untimely death regardless. And then there are the benefits of cooked foods – the good nutrients that are released during the heating process, as well as the bacteria and parasites that are killed off with heat.
Sorry – it ain’t simple. To me, the key is that when you’re eating raw, you’re not getting anything that’s been processed in any way – microwaved, pasteurized or genetically engineered – or anything with saturated or trans fats, added sugar, sodium or calories. So when you’re eating all raw, sure, you’re getting blasted with a lot of good stuff, but more importantly you’re not getting any of the bad stuff.
My takeaway from this experience is much bigger, though. Going raw made me fall in love with cooking all over again. It breathed new life into my curiosity about the endless possibilities when you throw heat into the mix, and it was a lovely reminder to take the heat down a few notches when I do cook. Above all it confirmed for me just how important cooking is as a social and cultural institution, how fundamental it is to being a human being. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the fact that as humans we can cook. And so we must.
…back to RAW. This pesto recipe has been my saving grace these past days. It's raw and it’s vegan and it can be added to so much more than pasta: salads, grain bowls, grilled bread, omelettes, pizza, soup, the list goes on.
I’m not a big fan of the word ‘pesto’, so in hopes of finding a replacement I looked into the etymology – Italian roots, shortened form of ‘pestato’ which is a conjugation of the verb ‘pestare’. When I searched ‘pestato’, google images turned up a bunch of Italian looking guys with beat up faces. Turns out ‘pestato’ just means crushed or clobbered or mashed. So, here it is – a basil nut smash, with a hint of pummeled Italian man.
Next to basil, pine nuts are the most recognizable ingredient in the traditional recipe that comes to mind when we think of pesto. But for the sake of flipping the bird to tradition, we’re using walnuts and cashews here. Walnuts crumble beautifully and cashews add a lovely rich creaminess to the recipe. I always throw in a handful of fresh arugula for a peppery bite.
Of course you can add parmesan to the mix. Just throw in 1/4 cup of good quality grated pecorino (and take the added salt down to 1/2 teaspoon or none at all). But you’ve really got your flavors covered here, so I suggest you try going raw on this one.
The key here is the process so that you don’t end up with one homogenized emulsion of green sauce. We want our pesto chunky and substantial and bright, hence resisting tossing all the ingredients together in the food processor and hitting hard on that grind button. Hand chopping takes time, but it’s worth it for this one.
BASIL NUT SMASH
1/4 cup raw, unsalted walnuts
1/4 cup raw, unsalted cashews
1 1/2 cup fresh basil
1/2 cup fresh arugula
large pinch coarse sea salt
juice & zest of half a lemon
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Roughly chop walnuts and cashews in food processor until you’ve achieved small, crumb-size pieces. Some larger are OK.
Finely chop arugula and basil by hand. A sharp knife is necessary and a mezzaluna or pizza cutter really helps to get a fine cut here. It helps to do a little at a time so you are evenly cutting your greens without chopping some into oblivion.
Finely chop your garlic cloves. Run the side of your knife over the chopped bits to help release their liquids. Continue chopping until you achieve a mince.
Combine nuts, greens, garlic with remaining ingredients in a bowl. Add a splash of olive oil just before serving and save by refrigerating in a jar.