Three Easy Vegan Pesto Recipes That’ll Take Your Pasta to the Next Level

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pesto Three Easy Vegan Pesto Recipes Thatll Take Your Pasta to the Next Level

Photo: Courtesy Hortus Cuisine

Italians love a good argument, especially if it is about food. Nobody gets as fired up about food as we Italians do.
Amongst the food arguments, there are some all-time favorite topics, such as: How is the “real” carbonara made? And are you supposed to add onion into a real Amatriciana sauce? How is traditional Ligurian pesto really made?

Yes, pesto is one of the hot topics. In this post, I give directions to make a classic Ligurian pesto, although technically there’s no possible way you could make “real” pesto outside of Liguria: you can only use young Ligurian basil leaves from Pra’, Ligurian pine nuts, Sardinian Pecorino (Liguria and Sardinia have always been closely connected by their port towns), Parmigiano, Vessalico garlic (which is especially mild), and pure Ligurian extra virgin olive oil. Even those jars you find in supermarkets are labeled as a fraud by die-hard Ligurian gourmands.

But we couldn’t care less. Because this guide is not about Ligurian pesto, but it’s about how to make a totally delicious vegan pesto—without using cheese or dairy!

I’ve been cutting back on dairy, and I like the idea of having all the goodness of basil, pine nuts, and olive oil without the cheese. Basil has strong anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and is an incredible source of vitamins and minerals (although the sky-high content of vitamin K could not make it suitable for those who take certain medications).

Pure, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is a real pharmacy, containing tons of vitamin E and antioxidants, as well as healthy fats. Here’s an olive oil trick, which the wonderful producers of ‘Il Conventino‘ shared with me: the best, freshest olive oil you will ever try will leave a tingling sensation on your tongue, a bit like chili would. Those are the antioxidants in the oil, acting as a sort of an “anesthetizer.” Cool, right?! Unfortunately, those antioxidants are very volatile, so it is very difficult to find an extra virgin olive oil with those characteristics (click the link to the site to see how olives are picked for olive oil!).

So, even though these recipes are not the real deal, they are pretty darn good in their own right and use tons of super-healthy ingredients. If we can’t call it pesto, should we call it … best-o? Or something.

Pesto is delicious with large cuts of pasta, as in lasagna, or in pretty much any kind of pasta you can think of. Use it to dress vegetables, in sandwiches, flatbreads, or in anything you can think of. Just be careful with the quantities—it’s all good-for-you ingredients, but it’s super high in calories!

pesto2 Three Easy Vegan Pesto Recipes Thatll Take Your Pasta to the Next Level

Photo: Courtesy Hortus Cuisine

THE INGREDIENTS EVERY VEGAN PESTO NEEDS

AN AROMATIC BASE: About one not-too-loosely packed cup. Choose your aromatic greens, or a mix of those! Think basil, arugula, parsley, sage, marjoram. I like to think that every season has its own pesto, and the combinations are endless. Each aromatic herb has its own health benefits, so I suggest you do a little research on each.

PICK YOUR NUTS: 1/4 heaping cup. The best kinds to use are walnuts, almonds, pistachios, and pine nuts. I like to think that almonds and pistachios go well with tomato-based pestos, while walnuts go well with fill-green, boldly aromatic pestos, like basil, parsley, or arugula. Have you seen my Pistachio Pesto post?

GARLIC: 1 or 2 cloves, depending on size. Garlic in pesto should never be overpowering. Choose a mild kind of garlic, or, if you’re like me and have trouble with raw garlic, use some garlic-infused olive oil.

OLIVE OIL! And tons of it—1/2 to 2/3 cups. Oil not only preserves the ingredients and makes them last longer in the fridge, but also contributes to the creaminess, so that you end up with pesto and not a spread. I know it’s scary to add all that oil, but consider that it’ll get your pesto to last longer and you’ll be able to use less of it. Choose the best extra virgin you can find for best results, or any good olive oil you can get your hands on. Some people prefer the oil to be milder, some others prefer the oil flavor to kick in, vehement and full-bodied. I belong to the latter category.

ADD-INS: Since we’re not adding the cheese, we can add some extra ingredients to bring it up a notch. Maybe a bit of nutritional yeast, gomasio (skip the salt in this case), or some seeds like hemp, sunflower or pumpkin.

UMAMI-RICH VARIATIONS: You can add umami-rich foods to make your pesto special, like porcini mushrooms, dried tomatoes, olives, truffles … get creative! Parmigiano and seasoned cheeses in general are full of umami, but so are these wonderful gifts of nature, so we’re not missing out on any flavor.

And don’t forget a large pinch of whole sea salt!

The best thing ever would be to get a mortar and pestle, and DIY to get the best out of every ingredients, but I’ll be realistic and tell you that you can do it in a food processor.

Following this simple guide, you can make your own pesto easily, but here are the recipes for some of my favorite combos:

1. Basic Vegan Pesto

Makes about a ¾ cup of pesto
Ingredients
  • 1 cup basil leaves (or other aromatic herb)
  • ¼ cup nuts (walnuts, pine nuts, almonds…)
  • 1 medium mild garlic clove
  • ½ to ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • A large pinch of salt, or 1 scant tbsp Gomasio
  • EXTRA: 1 tbsp add-ins like hemp, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, or nutritional yeast
  • EXTRA: ½ cup umami-rich ingredients to customize your pesto: chopped olives, chopped dried tomatoes, chopped dried and rehydrated mushrooms.
Instructions
IF USING A MORTAR AND PESTLE
  1. Add the salt and garlic first, and mash them together. Add the herbs and gently tear the leaves, slowly at first, then more vigorously until a cream forms with the garlic.
  2. Add the nuts and pound them well, then add any add-ins you might be using. Mash well.
  3. Start adding your olive oil as you keep pounding. Grind all the ingredients with a circular motion as you add the olive oil. Adjust salt and oil as preferred.
  4. The mortar and pestle method works best for traditional herb pestos, with no umami ingredients added.
IF USING A FOOD PROCESSOR
  1. If making tomato, olive or other pestos with bulky ingredients, you might be better off using a food processor in any case. Just add all the ingredients but only half of the oil to the food processor and blend well, then slowly add the rest of the olive oil to achieve the desired thickness.
  2. Pesto will last a few days in the fridge, stored it in an airtight container. It is best used within three days for maximum flavor.
pesto3 Three Easy Vegan Pesto Recipes Thatll Take Your Pasta to the Next Level

Photo: Courtesy Hortus Cuisine

2. OLIVE HERB PESTO

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, or your favorite olives
  • 1 cup of a herb mix of basil, parsley, and marjoram
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
  • 1 medium garlic clove (or 2)
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice (or more to taste)
  • A large pinch of salt (or 1 scant tbsp Gomasio)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Follow the directions for making pesto in the food processor. Roughly chop the olives beforehand to make blending easier.

pesto4 Three Easy Vegan Pesto Recipes Thatll Take Your Pasta to the Next Level

Photo: Courtesy Hortus Cuisine

3. TOMATO BASIL PESTO

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 cup ripe, sweet cherry tomatoes
  • 3 large dried tomatoes halves preserved in olive oil
  • 1 cup basil leaves
  • 1 medium garlic clove
  • A large pinch of salt (or 1 scant tbsp Gomasio)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Follow the directions for making pesto in the food processor. When adding the dried tomatoes, don’t drain them too much—you want some of the flavored oil in (but not too much, as the oil used for preserving vegetables is usually low quality).

pesto5 Three Easy Vegan Pesto Recipes Thatll Take Your Pasta to the Next Level

Photo: Courtesy of Hortus Cuisine

Real Ligurian pesto is possibly one of the best things you will EVER taste in your life. It is used to dress a variety of local pastas—some of which I’ll talk about in the near future. I am especially fascinated by a kind of pasta that is called “Mandilli de Saea” in the local dialect, which means “silk tissues.” Imagine cutting pasta squares to make ravioli or cappellacci, and, well, not make the ravioli but cook the large squares just as is.

But I hope Italians will forget us. Right?

And what’s YOUR favorite kind of pesto? Let me know!

Valentina is a 25-year-old Italian ex-graphic designer who, like many designers, got seduced by food photography. She runs hortuscuisine.com, a blog where she shares Italian natural, vegetarian recipes from the Italian countryside. She loves green tea, hates cilantro, and considers handmade pasta a form of art. Follow along on Instagram @HortusCuisine.

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