A perfect punchy vegan pesto recipe, made from fresh basil, pine nuts, lemon, garlic, vegan cheese and olive oil. So much better than shop-bought!
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Pesto brings a pop of colour and fresh green flavour to anything you add it to. In our house that includes toasted sandwiches, creamy pasta bakes, pizza toppings, pie fillings, lunchtime wraps and mashed potato.
And, (cover your ears, pesto purists), you can make pesto out of all sorts of things you might have in your fridge right now – droopy herbs, dried up offcuts of vegan cheese, all those odds and ends of packets of nuts and seeds in your cupboard.
Is Pesto Vegan?
No! Not usually – as it contains hard cheese. However, it is so easy to make vegan pesto that it really isn’t a problem.
This vegan pesto recipe contains a dairy-free hard cheese which adds a lovely texture, flavour and saltiness to the pesto.
However if you don’t want to use it you can simply leave it out altogether and add more nuts, or replace with 2 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes (lovingly known as ‘nooch’ in the vegan community!), which will add a ‘cheesiness’ and big boost of the elusive vitamin B12 at the same time.
How to make homemade pesto from almost anything!
Pesto is such a great way of using up all sorts of bits and pieces you might have lying around your kitchen. I’ve made the recipe below fairly adaptable so that you can substitute in whatever you have to hand or to experiment with all sorts of combinations.
The three elements that give the most flexibility are:
I read a brilliant article on pesto the other day that said “Pine nuts are priced for hedge fund managers” – isn’t that true?! Whilst their ‘buttery’ flavour and richness are just perfect for pesto, they do cost an arm and a leg so I am always on the lookout for other ideas. I like to use a combination of:
- Blanched almonds which have a great flavour and texture for pesto.
- Seeds – especially sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. They are also much cheaper than nuts so a combination of half seeds and half nuts makes a much more budget-friendly pesto.
- Macadamia nuts are totally delicious with a really ‘buttery’ flavour too. I love using them in homemade flapjacks but they are also great in pesto. However, they are also pricy, so half-and-half with seeds or peanuts is they way to go.
- Pistachios are also superb and add to the vibrant green colour. Make sure you go for unsalted nuts, or else taste and adjust.
- Peanuts are one of the cheapest nuts you can buy, so are great for bulking out a big batch of pesto. Again, either make sure they are unsalted or adjust the salt in the recipe accordingly.
Pesto is such a great way to use up bits and bobs of slightly droopy herbs, greens or vegetable tops. Whilst a classic pesto is made from 100% fresh basil, I like to mix and match all sorts of other green things depending on what is available, such as:
- Herbs other than basil give pesto quite a different character, so experiment with what you do and don’t like. Parsley gives a fresh, grassy flavour, a little spring of mint is nice, (but I wouldn’t use too much or it can be overpowering). I’m not such a fan of coriander in pesto, but some love it.
- Leaves Rocket is deliciously peppery – again I wouldn’t use rocket on its own, but 50/50 basil and rocket is a lovely combination. Baby spinach leaves are very mild so work well with a stronger tasting herb. Watercress is also very peppery so lovely in small quantities. Kale and chard are both delicious and very easy to grow, but do need a quick plunge into a jug of boiling water before using as they are tougher than other leaves. Rinse in cold water immediately, then dry thoroughly before using.
- Vegetable tops Beetroot tops make wonderful pesto with a purple tinge, (though I would combine with herbs too), as do carrot tops and radish tops – make sure they are clean and dry.
- Vegetables make lovely pesto too – par-boil broccoli or peas and combine with 50% basil or other herbs, using the quantities in the recipe below.
- Avocado gives a lovely creamy sauce for pasta – use alongside basil or other herbs, but be warned that avocado pesto doesn’t keep so you will need to use the whole lot at once.
You need a hard and salty cheese for pesto – my top recommendation is Violife’s Prosociano Wedge which is a parmesan-style vegan cheese. Alternatively, I do sometimes use bits and bobs of cheddar-style vegan cheese that have been lurking in the back of the fridge and gone a bit hard, and they are great too.
As I said above, if you prefer not to use vegan cheese, you can simply leave it out altogether and add more nuts, or replace with 2 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes.
Whilst a good quality extra virgin olive oil is one of the stars of the pesto show, it can be so strong and grassy as to be a bit dominating, especially if you are using a mix of milder green leaves.
So, by all means mix and match – perhaps half extra virgin olive oil and half rapeseed, sunflower or groundnut oil – something with a much milder flavour.
What you need to make your Vegan Pesto
You will need some sort of blender, food processor or mini-chopper for pesto. I have a small and a large one, and use whichever is easiest for the quantity I am making.
For small quantities I use my Breville Active Compact Food Processor* which at £30 is a bargain and really handy for all sorts of small chopping and blending jobs in the kitchen.
Or for big quantities for the freezer, I will get out my Magimix Pro Food Processor* which has three different sized bowls for any size job. (This one was a gift for review from Magimix some years ago, but I’m a big fan and haven’t ever been paid to say so!)
How long can I keep my homemade Pesto?
This fresh pesto will keep for 4-5 days in the fridge, however you can stretch this to a few weeks if you cover the top of the pesto with a thin layer of olive oil, and continue to keep the top covered with oil every time you use some.
Technically you can freeze pesto, but it does lose a bit of its zing and lovely fresh taste so I only do this if I’ve made a really big batch and know I won’t get through it. I freeze it in ice cube trays then pop them out into a container or bag, so that I only need to defrost one small portion at a time.
What can I make with vegan pesto?
Pesto is a great ingredient to have on standby in the fridge for all sorts of things, from fancy dinner recipes to simple lunch ideas. How about:
- Toasted sandwiches – vegan cheese and a teaspoon of homemade pesto makes a delicious toasted sandwich or wrap.
- Creamy pasta sauce – add a tablespoon to vegan cheese sauce or vegan béchamel to make a delicious pasta bake.
- Mashed Potato – a tablespoon of pesto stirred through mashed potato makes a lovely cottage pie topping or side dish for vegan sausages.
- Wraps – I love the look of this Beet Salad Lunch Wrap from Jac at Tinned Tomatoes or Becca’s Avocado & Sweet Potato Wrap (if you use vegan mayo) from Easy Cheesy Vegetarian.
- Pizza Whilst vegan cheeses have improved SO much in the last few years, I do still find that you have to be a bit sparing on the mozzarella when making homemade pizza, or it can be a bit cloying. I like using blobs of homemade pesto dotted amongst the cheese and toppings, for a bit hit of flavour and to cut through the cheese.
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- 100 g nuts (I used 50g pine nuts and 50g blanched almonds, or see notes above)
- 2 cloves garlic
- 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 120 g basil (or other herbs and leaves – see notes above)
- 50 g vegan hard cheese (eg. vegan parmesan)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- In a dry frying pan, toast the nuts until they are just starting to turn golden, and their oils are being released.
- Tip the toasted nuts into a blender or food processor and add the peeled and crushed garlic cloves.
- Grate in the vegan cheese and add the olive oil.
- Blitz these ingredients until roughly chopped and combined.
- Pick the basil leaves off their stalks and add to the blender, (discard the stalks). If you run out of space. just blitz again to make more room.
- Add the lemon juice and salt, then blitz until all combined – you can leave it as smooth or chunky as you prefer.
- Tip into a clean, sterilised jar and pour a little more oil over the top. Seal and keep in the fridge.