I’ve been making pesto without nuts for quite some time. True story. Let’s be real here: pine nuts are expensive, basil is expensive (unless you have a garden full in the middle of summer), so pesto in it’s traditional form is just darn expensive to make. But wait…not anymore! Try my substitutions for this nut-free vegan pesto and you’ll be spooning pesto over everything all year long.
Sunflower Seeds are Magic
I started using sunflower seeds in place of pine nuts when I had a bowl full of basil and a guest who was allergic to tree nuts at the Rivertown Inn, where I work as a chef. I scratched my head for a few moments, zoned in on a bag of sunflower seeds and thought, “why not?”. It was magic I tell you. Honestly, there is not a whole lot of difference in the taste, and the price difference makes this an obvious substitution. Use the same amount of sunflower seeds in place of pine nuts and you’ve got yourself a budget-friendly pesto!
Basil and Other Herbs
In the peak of summer when I have more basil than I know what to do with, I cram as much basil as I can into my Vitamix and pesto away! But, when winter hits in Minnesota, the plethora of basil diminishes seemingly overnight. Boo hoo. And the price goes way up. Double boo hoo. So what’s a girl to do?
My solution: use other less expensive herbs to supplement the basil. My traditional basil pesto recipe calls for 2 cups of basil, but during the winter months I use a cup of basil and a cup of parsley to cut down on the cost. The basil flavor still shines through and you’ve got yourself a bowl of pesto that smells like summer. My craving for summertime in January is so overwhelming that the smell of fresh basil in the winter literally makes me weak in the knees.
Switch it up and add other herbs you have lying around to make different flavored pesto. I’ve used a few tablespoons of fresh rosemary, thyme and even mint to give my pesto a distinctive twist.
What About the Cheese?
Traditional pesto has parmesan cheese in it, but not to fear…vegan pesto has nutritional yeast to mimic that flavor. What is nutritional yeast? Well, the scientific answer is: its a single-celled organism named Saccharomyces Cerevisiae which grows on molasses and is harvested, washed, and then dried with heat to kill or “deactivate” it. The foodie answer is: it is little yellow flakes that give vegan foods a cheesy flavor. Plus, it is the only plant-based food that naturally contains vitamin B-12, an essential vitamin that vegans need to supplement in their diet. You can find nutritional yeast in the health food section of most grocery stores, in the bulk section of health food stores or on Amazon. If you don’t have any on hand, you can still make this pesto, just add a bit more salt and an extra clove of garlic.
So, what to do with all this delicious pesto? Use it as a sauce on pastas or pizzas. Thin it out with a little broth or water and use it as a salad dressing. Use it as a spread on a sandwich. Saute some spinach or kale and stir it in at the end. The possibilities are endless. Get creative, and most of all…ENJOY!
Nut-Free Vegan Pesto
- 2 cups loosely packed basil or other herbs such as parsley, cilantro or sage
- 1/4 cup raw sunflower seeds
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 clove garlic, or to taste
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast, or to taste
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 3-6 tablespoons water, depending on desired consistency
- Add all ingredients except water to a blender container and blend on high until pureed. Add water a tablespoon at a time until desired consistency is reached.
- Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days. The pesto will start to discolor after a day or two, but will still be delicious to eat! Enjoy!
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