Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Two Vegan Pesto Recipes (and how to design your own)

Pesto is one those foods I never tried before going vegan, and it made a pretty big impression the first time I did.  Pesto is a rich, intensely flavorful sauce made primarily from a combination of herbs, nuts, and oil. The difference between traditional and vegan pesto recipes is generally the inclusion of parmesan cheese, which can be substituted for with extra lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and a higher proportion of nuts. Nutritional yeast may also be helpful.

I like to decrease the fat by replacing some of the traditional oil with warm water.  This makes the sauce a little lighter, which means you can eat more of it. And that's good thing, because you’ll want seconds once you taste it. : )  

Vegan Pesto Sauce

Parsley Walnut Pesto

5 cups fresh parsley, roughly chopped
2/3 cup walnuts
3 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp minced garlic (more or less to taste)
1 Tbsp oil
1-2 Tbsp nutritional yeast (optional)
up to ½ cup warm water (or more oil, if you like)
salt and pepper to taste

Waiting in the food processor
Place parsley, nuts, lemon juice, garlic, yeast, and 1 tbsp oil in food processor or strong blender. Puree until fairly smooth. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides with a spatula. Start the machine up again and drizzle the water (or oil) into the chute slowly while food processor is running. Stop when you reach a soft spreadable consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Kale Almond Pesto

1 large bunch kale
1 cup almonds
¼ cup lemon juice
1 heaping Tbsp minced garlic (more or less to taste)
1 Tbsp oil
1-2 Tbsp nutritional yeast (optional)
up to ½ cup warm water (or more oil)
salt and pepper to taste

Wash and de-stem kale. Steam or microwave kale until it turns bright green and tender. Place cooked kale, nuts, lemon juice, garlic, yeast, and 1 tbsp oil in food processor and blend. Pour in water or oil slowly while machine is running, scraping sides once or twice. You may need less water/oil depending on how much water the kale absorbs while cooking, so go easy.

Now that you have pesto, what do you do with it? The most common way to serve it is over pasta, preferably a shape with lots of crevices to catch sauce in. It can also be used in sandwiches, particularly grilled ones, and makes an excellent pizza sauce. I’ve also seen it used in various salads, including potato salad and cold pasta salad.

My favorite pesto meal is curly pasta tossed with pesto and Italian flavored white beans:

Italian Flavored White Beans

2 15 oz cans white beans, drained and rinsed
1-2 tsp oil (more if you like)
1-2 tbsp lemon juice
1-2 tsp minced garlic
½ tsp Italian seasoning
¼ tsp dried basil
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together and heat until warm in microwave or on stovetop
If you like, you can pre-sauté the garlic in the oil before adding the rest of the ingredients, but it’s not totally necessary.

Toss with pesto and your favorite pasta.
Pasta with Pesto and White Beans


Traditional pesto: Using the parsley/walnut recipe, substitute fresh basil for the parsley and pine nuts for the walnuts. You might want to make a half recipe because of the increased price of ingredients, and because it won’t last as long due to the basil’s tendency to oxidize.

Build your own Pesto:  Fresh greens that can be used as pesto bases include the aforementioned basil and parsley, arugula, cilantro, watercress, mint or spinach . So can cooked greens such the kale above as well as collards, chard, mustard greens, etc. Even cooked vegetables outside the category of greens can be used, such as peas, asparagus, or edamame—these usually require less nuts and oil to achieve a creamy texture when blended. I’ve even seen seemingly unrelated veggies such as sun-dried tomatoes made into pesto.  For the nuts, virtually any type of nut or seed works, although some combinations play better with other ingredients than others. Mild flavored almonds and hazelnuts go with almost anything, but strong flavored nuts or seeds go best with more assertive greens. Toasted nuts can be used as well. Sunflower seeds or (shelled) pumpkin seeds can be used for a nut-free pesto—the pumpkin seeds in particular are often paired with cilantro.  Sometimes avocados or olives are used to add richness in place of some or all of the nuts as well.

Freeform Pesto Equation: 
Greens or other veggies (~4-5 parts)
Nuts or seeds (~1 part)
 flavoring agents such as garlic, lemon, spices (to taste)
 Liquid such as water or oil (~1/2 to 1 part)
 Vegan Pesto!

Have fun!


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