Recipe: Fig and Celery Salad with Walnut Pesto Crostini
Walnut pesto is a lovely thing, but it’s quite a load in the calorie department when used for its intended purpose, being tossed with pasta. I’ve found a new way to enjoy the rich paste in small doses where it can still make a big impact: on warm crostini (which work really well with whole-grain bread, if you’re so inclined).
Walnuts and fresh figs are an exquisite combination, and now is the time for figs. Not local New York figs; such things don’t exist unless you’re an old Italian-American living in Bay Ridge and stubbornly trying to keep a fig tree alive through the winter by wrapping it in swaddling clothes. The figs in the markets now are flown in from California and arrive in pretty good shape. Corner fruit vendors are now selling pints of black-skinned figs. I actually prefer green-skinned ones, but I take what I can get, and if you make sure they’re perfectly ripe, the black-skinned kind can be delicious, especially tossed in a salad. My only gripe with them is that sometimes their skins are thick and taste bitter. But if they’re really ripe, that isn’t usually a problem.
A simple vinaigrette really compliments the funky sweetness of figs, especially one well seasoned with salt and fresh black pepper. I tossed a few ripe figs with Boston lettuce (which is very underrated, in my opinion) and a handful of thin-sliced celery and a few celery leaves (also underrated, and a great flavor boost when added to a soffrito, for instance). Then I made my walnut pesto crostini and plopped them around the salad. I really liked the way the flavors came together. There is nothing really sweet about the salad, even though it contains fruit. Somehow the celery, shallots, and walnuts take it forcefully in the direction of savory. It is practically an entire meal (though I did make a roast chicken with garlic and fennel to go with it).
Buying walnuts can be a problem. I don’t know about you, but I often find that the shelled walnuts I get at most food shops are stale and bitter. This is really a drag, especially since they come in those little sealed-up plastic containers, so you can’t exactly taste-test them. I think you do better buying them in Italy or France, where they’re considered a luxury item, not just some dusty thing you throw into a trail mix. I’ve found ones that are usually very good at Buonitalia at the Chelsea Market (whose website is buonitalia.com). They are imported, shelled Italian walnuts, and they’re vacuum-packed. Buonitalia sells all its nuts this way, and it keeps them very fresh.
If you can get your hands on some very fresh walnuts and a few figs, this is a good early fall salad to throw together.
Fig and Celery Salad with Walnut Pesto Crostini
For the pesto:
1 cup very fresh shelled walnuts
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons grated Grana Padano cheese
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1 baguette, whole-grain if you like, cut into 2 thin slices per serving
For the salad:
1 large head Boston lettuce
A handful of watercress
2 tender inner celery stalks, thinly sliced, plus leaves from about four stalks
1 small shallot, very thinly sliced
12 ripe, black skinned figs, cut in half lengthwise
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon walnut oil
1/2 tablespoon red wine vinegar
To make the pesto, place the walnuts and garlic in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until you have a rough chop. Add the Grana Padano, olive oil, parsley, a little salt, and a few grindings of black pepper. Pulse a few more times, just until you have a fairly rough but amalgamated texture. Scrape the pesto into a little bowl.
Put the Boston lettuce and watercress in a salad bowl. Add the celery and leaves, shallot, and figs. Season the salad with a generous amount of fresh black pepper. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive and walnut oils and the vinegar. Season with a little salt.
Toast the baguette slices on both sides, and spread them lightly with the pesto.
Toss the salad with the dressing, and serve it onto four salad plates. Place two crostini on each plate. Serve right away.