December 5, 2011

Bestest Pesto

by IsaChandra

Makes 2 cups
Time: 20 minutes

I guess the sauce that speaks to my heart and runs through my veins more than anything is pesto. I love it on sandwiches, in soups, on scrambled tofu and stir-fries. I would eat it in a house and I would eat it with a mouse. I would even eat it with Václav Klaus (the president of the Czech Republic, duh.)

And I don’t discriminate with ingredients for my pesto, either. So long as it’s fresh and green, it’s fair game. I like to use all manner of nuts- pistachios, cashews, brazil nuts, no one comes out alive.

But when I want to feel my Brooklyn roots, I go classic: basil, pine nuts, olive oil. Still, even those simple flavors aren’t safe from my whims. This is the recipe for exactly the pesto that I crave — classic ingredients with a few minor adjustments.

Half the pinenuts are replaced with walnuts; a combo which started out as a cost saving measure, but now I just prefer the flavor and texture. Of course I always toast ‘em first to bring out the flavor. I keep it mostly basil, but a little bit of cilantro brightens things up, and some thyme because I’m Isa and I love thyme.

A splash of lemon heightens the flavors and provides some tang, and just a little nooch gives some craeminess and cheeziness. I replace half of the oil in a traditional pesto with some water, and it’s none the worse for it. I actually prefer it this way because it’s not greasy.

Bestest Pesto

The pesto makes enough for a pound of pasta. You can, of course, serve it a million ways, but since this is Comfort Food Month on my blog, I’m going to share my favorite!

I’ve spoken about my love for Louise Hagler’s Tofu Cookery before. And so of course her Tofu Balls have a place on my ideal pasta comfort plate. I make sure to add an extra huge pinch of oregano to them to provide a little herbal flavor contrast with the pesto. And another love is roasted cauliflower. When roasted, cauliflower develops an amazingly complex and nutty flavor that reminds me a little of a campfire. Maybe a campfire on prescription painkillers. It’s really really good. To roast cauliflower: 425 F oven, big pieces of cauli tossed with a little olive oil, salt and fresh black pepper. Large rimmed baking sheet, roast for about 20 minutes, flipping once. Voila!

And so, yeah, there it is, my soul bared in the form of a pesto pasta. And I even plan on doing a post about homemade pasta soon if you feel like going totally overboard this winter.

1/4 cup walnut halves
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cloves garlic
2 1/2 cups fresh basil
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Fresh black pepper (to finish)

First toast the nuts. I will let you in on my secret hybrid nut toasting method. Preheat a large heavy bottomed skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium-low heat. First toast the walnuts for about 5 minutes, tossing them often. Then add the pinenuts for an additional 5. They should turn a few shades darker and smell warm and toasty.

Transfer toasted nuts to a food processor. Add the garlic and pulse everything into fine crumbs. Add the basil, cilantro, thyme, salt, nutritional yeast and water and puree until relatively smooth, scraping down the sides at least once to make sure you get everything. Stream in the olive oil and blend until well combined. Last but not least, blend in the lemon juice.

I serve it over warm pasta (don’t rinse, it needs the starch to stick), and finish it off with some fresh black pepper.

  • December 5, 2011 at 9:45 pm: Maija Haavisto

    Sounds lovely. Thyme is one ingredient I haven’t seen in a pesto before.

    I’ve started adding some balsamic vinegar to my pestos after I read it in some recipe (Vegan Brunch? The Uncheese Cookbook?), it adds a nice depth.

    Cauliflower and pesto is also a rather nice combo.

  • December 5, 2011 at 9:50 pm: eniloracus

    Mmmmmm…Love me some pesto! Now to nom on my hand for a few hours until I can run home and make this.

  • December 5, 2011 at 10:10 pm: Kadee

    This sounds like food heaven, I cannot wait to try it! Thanks for the recipe!

  • December 5, 2011 at 10:49 pm: Lisa

    yay i cant wait to make this. at thanksgiving my gramma gave me her old food processor(its old and ghetto,but it works!) Ive never had one before now i can make all these recipes that call for grinding nuts!!I love pesto and have always wanted to try it but i feared nut grinding would screw up my blender!

  • December 5, 2011 at 10:51 pm: Bett

    What is nooch???

  • December 5, 2011 at 11:06 pm: Joanne Faulkner

    Nutritional yeast flakes. Lovely stuff.

  • December 5, 2011 at 11:34 pm: Mandee

    Yummo, I don’t often make my own pesto but I will just to try this recipe. Also, I now want a pale purple plate, it photographs so well.

  • December 6, 2011 at 12:10 am: Katrina

    This does sound like the bestest! Yum!

  • December 6, 2011 at 12:30 am: jane

    ooo! thyme would add a certain cheesy flavour i think! i’m gonna try this for sure :) thanks isa!

  • December 6, 2011 at 12:56 am: Kat

    Parsley pesto FTW! :) Also, freshly toasted sunflower seeds are a delicious and very affordable nut alternative. Making… it… now…! :)

  • December 6, 2011 at 1:48 am: Joy

    I really love the idea of using half water here. I’m personally averse to cilantro, but my favorite variation on pesto I make is scallion-cashew (also with just a dash of nooch and lotsa black pepper).

  • December 6, 2011 at 1:55 am: KZCakes

    I make this all the time! I guess I like it best with shape pasta like penne or shells. So lame that you can’t order pesto at a restaurant because it always has parm in it. But this is definitely a go-to dish for me when I don’t have an ambitious dinner menu planned. Comfort food for sure!

  • December 6, 2011 at 3:14 am: Erin @ she cooks, she gardens

    Yum! I’ve been going crazy for pesto lately, trying out some different combos of basil in the vegie patch with great results – Lime Basil is my current fave.

  • December 6, 2011 at 3:54 am: William

    Oh snaps! This is making my half buzzed ass drool right now and all I have is a frozen Tofurkey pizza to eat in my house.

    By the way Isa, I found alphabet pasta at the Hyvee on Cass the other day. It is like $3.00 for a box and each box has like 2 cups in it. It is like a mac and cheese sized box.

    • December 6, 2011 at 10:12 pm: IsaChandra

      That is good to know, thanks!

  • December 6, 2011 at 5:30 am: Julia

    What are the delicious looking crunchy things next to the pesto? Not the cauliflower, obviously. The fascinating balls of something.

    • December 6, 2011 at 10:11 pm: IsaChandra

      Those are the tofu balls! I link to them in the post.

  • December 6, 2011 at 12:03 pm: Sara

    Wow I’m gonna have to pop by the supermarket on the way home for some walnuts and basil me thinks!

  • December 7, 2011 at 2:42 pm: Krissy

    Pesto is the besto! My family likes it best with toasted walnuts, baby spinach, freshly grated nutmeg and lotsa garlic. I am intrigued by combining walnuts & pine nuts and adding lemon juice. Your website & books have made transitioning to vegan a breeze for my family. Thanks Isa… you rock.

  • December 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm: Pauline S

    I highly recommend cilantro-almond pesto, I served it once with roasted sweet potatoes, it was really great… of course, if you like cilantro (it seems like people either love or hate it… I am a huge fan)
    Thanks Isa for this recipe, I’ll try it soon!

  • December 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm: Alyssa

    I have that unfortunate “cilantro = soap” neural mishap, so I went for leftover parsley from Thanksgiving stuffing. And it was so good! Definitely a great twist on my beloved VWAV pesto.

  • December 8, 2011 at 1:14 am: Gretta

    YUM! I love the added nutritional yeast and the lemon, both earthy and tangy! Here’s my question: Can I please put some cheese on top? It’s so flavorful but I am so used to either parm or romano on top of my pesto. Or maybe some cheese on my cauliflower? Can I put cheese on anything? I realize you are not restricting me, but I would love permission. Thank you.

  • December 8, 2011 at 10:02 pm: Cait

    Hey, did you guys know that you’re awesome? Also, that you’re mind readers? I was just thinking of pesto and there it is!

  • December 8, 2011 at 11:44 pm: Ariann

    Made this tonight and it was really delicious!! I added spinach and parsley!! Super yummy!!!

  • December 9, 2011 at 6:51 am: Jonathan

    Fresh pesto just can’t be beat…no argument. And straying from the classic is cool as long as you commit to using quality ingredients that speak to your palate and your soul. Thank you for the tip on cutting the oil with water – I am definitely going to try that next time. :)

  • December 9, 2011 at 10:30 am: Michelle

    This was so good! The only pesto I’ve ever liked. Yummy!

  • December 9, 2011 at 2:37 pm: Scissors and Spice

    That looks so scrumptious! And I love the photo–bright green pesto with the purple plate. So bright and cheery!

  • December 9, 2011 at 8:13 pm: melissa

    i like to cut the oil and use an avocado
    but my question for issa is…..what is the best way to reheat pesto for leftovers?

  • December 11, 2011 at 4:44 am: Esen

    This looks so good Isa, but what I really LOVE is your writing. I love reading what you write, so I am really looking forward to this non-fiction book you have alluded to!

    All the best,

  • December 11, 2011 at 3:58 pm: Lisa

    the color is BEAUTIFUL!

  • December 12, 2011 at 8:47 am: Iva

    The first homemade pesto I did! Delicious… regards from Czech republic :o))

  • December 13, 2011 at 1:11 pm: Tracy

    I thought I would miss cheese in the pesto, but I did not – the flavor was great. I liked it even better on day two, it seemed like the flavors had a chance to meld. And the tofu balls are fantastic. I ate some leftover ones on a toasted sandwich with Vegenaise . . . so simple, so delicious.

  • December 13, 2011 at 7:48 pm: wendy

    I’m one of the few folks out here who isn’t wild about the taste of nutritional yeast. Could I substitute light miso?

    • December 14, 2011 at 1:56 am: IsaChandra

      Yup, it’s delish with miso.

  • December 13, 2011 at 10:06 pm: Natalie

    So perfect. Thanks again Isa!

  • December 31, 2011 at 1:52 am: NOMNOMNOMNOMNOMNOMNOMNOM

    This is perfect!! It’s so delicious!!! And easy to make!! I’m in love <3 **yumyum**

  • January 4, 2012 at 12:32 am: Pamela

    i ran out of fresh basil and subbed in a cup of fresh spinach. Delicious! Thank you! perfect recipe for everyone in the fam.

  • January 6, 2012 at 2:49 am: Robyn Mary

    This pesto is so delicious!!!!!

  • January 13, 2012 at 5:26 am: Diana

    Made the pesto and pasta last night and added sautéed veggies and was wonderful! made those awesome tofu balls tonight, I changed the seasoning using curry powder and a mix of peanut butter and almond butter, served them with leftover red lentil dal from your recipe and the roasted cauliflower and some mango chutney, Outstanding! My carnivore husband said he could eat that every night! Thank you! Great blog and great recipes!

  • January 17, 2012 at 7:36 pm: Reia

    I love the idea of adding nutritional yeast to this dish if you want the “cheesy” flavor. And what a good idea to do half walnuts–last time I bought pine nuts, I about fell over at the price. Good thinking! Nothing more comforting than a bowl of pasta with a homemade sauce!

  • February 15, 2012 at 2:37 am: Kim

    I made this whole meal last night. This is without a doubt the BEST pesto I have ever had! It is divine. So delicious <3

  • February 20, 2012 at 8:28 am: CK

    How do you measure out the basil? Densely packed cups, or loosely packed? Can you have too much basil? I usually use all the leaves from two living plants from the supermarket and I’m not sure it that’s too much…

    • February 20, 2012 at 7:15 pm: IsaChandra

      Somewhere in between. Err on the side of more basil.

  • March 16, 2012 at 3:16 am: Jane H. Johansen @ Nord Vegan


  • March 18, 2012 at 9:17 am: Maureen

    Can someone (Isa?) tell me how do you measure the basil? Is it chopped up and then squashed in the cup? Is it just the leaves loose in the cup? I have never made pesto before so I want to make it right first time!

  • March 18, 2012 at 9:18 am: Maureen

    Ha… just as I posted this I saw the great minds thinking alike comment! ThanksIsa :).

  • March 19, 2012 at 8:15 am: Melody Holmes

    Wow! I made this tonight (to go with the pesto risotto) and although I was sceptical of the combination of basil, coriander AND thyme I found I couldn’t stop eating it from the blender. Ok so I skipped the nutritional yeast but this is by far the best pesto I’ve ever tasted. Amazing – I should have known by now not to second guess you Isa. My two small children also wolfed down the risotto without any coercion. Thanks!

  • March 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm: annac

    YES!! amazing pesto. best I’ve ever made or eaten :) thank you! i added an extra garlic clove b/c i love me some garlic. Made the whole meal and added in some brussels sprouts too. Tofu balls so good we keep calling them YUM BALLS. lol. will be checking back for more delicious dishes.

  • April 11, 2012 at 11:21 pm: Connie Fletcher

    OMG!!! This is the absolute BOMB!!! The bestest pesto EVER!!!!

  • April 14, 2012 at 1:06 am: Rachael

    awesome, I was just thinking about how pesto is one of the things I miss about becoming vegan (actually, I’m not vegan but pretty close…allergic to dairy, and soy, and before I found out about those allergies, I was already vegetarian. although I eat eggs, I won;t be using them in any of the vegan recipes I try). What does the nutritional yeast lend (besides nutrients) – flavor, texture?

  • April 17, 2012 at 6:48 pm: Stacey

    I’m not a huge fan of walnuts, so I was wondering if it would be possible to substitute slivered almonds? I know I could sub more pine nuts, but they are way too pricey.

  • April 23, 2012 at 2:56 pm: Connie Fletcher

    Just a side note, and hopefully I won’t go on and on, ad nauseum, as I tend to do….I used this pesto as a base pizza sauce with diced tomatoes, sliced black olives and Daiya cheese (some of the new block “Jack” cheese mixed with th Mozzarella) and dare I say…..YUM-A-LISH-OUS!!!!! I had some leftover sourdough starter that was ready to use, mixed it equal parts starter and flour along with some EVOO and salt. OMG!! Try i!

  • June 4, 2012 at 4:54 pm: bethany

    isa–what’s the best way to preserve this pesto? i’ve got a sh!t ton of basil growing in my garden and was thinking of making lots of pesto and then freezing it. thanks!

  • June 25, 2012 at 8:58 pm: Steph

    Bethany – when I make a ton of pesto, I first put it in ice cube trays or cupcake tins and freeze. Once frozen, I transfer them to gallon size freezer bags. That way I can just grab the amount of pesto I want. (Otherwise you’ll need an ice pick to chip off the desired amount, and you could lose an eye.) It’s a great treat in winter and super easy.

  • July 15, 2012 at 8:26 pm: Laura K

    I just made this to make your pesto risotto but I used spinach because I was out of basil. It turned out delicious! Even my five and nine year old kids loved it. Thank you so much!

  • August 31, 2012 at 1:34 am: dillon

    alright alright! i actually made this before writing the review and lemme tell ya — it’s so amazing. so, so, so, so amazing. definitely the bestest pesto…. besto pesto… bestesto pesesto. ever.

  • September 1, 2012 at 6:40 pm: Stephanie

    Delicious!!! I just used a 1/2 cup of walnuts instead of half pine nuts & half walnuts. Turned out great still.

  • October 7, 2012 at 10:19 pm: Nat

    Isa is not exaggerating: this IS the best(est) pesto! Even when using parsley in place of cilantro and stale pine nuts the first time because it’s all I had. When I made it again today, with fresh everything, it came out even better.

    Thank you, Isa!

  • October 17, 2012 at 12:19 am: wanderingonion

    I make this pesto for pizza sauce. It’s delicious!

  • November 1, 2012 at 4:11 pm: YumYum

    I wish they invented a computer that materialized food samples! Me so hungry. Me lick screen.

  • November 17, 2012 at 1:59 am: Amy W

    My non-vegan husband liked it so much that he wanted to eat it again the next night. Wonderful!!

  • November 18, 2012 at 2:44 am: Amanda

    Thank you for the scrumptious sounding vegan pesto. Looking forward to trying

  • January 6, 2013 at 11:17 am: Denise Sixsmith

    This is amazing! We have a huge herb garden, and I’m pretty sure more basil than we actually planted :) My husband has to be dairy free and I’m gluten free, so this worked our perfectly. After a short hunt to find nutritional yeast (I’m living in Australia right now), I tried it out tonight. I used at least 4 if not five different kinds of basil, and it’s BEAUTIFUL. I may try it without the salt next time, but it’s GORGEOUS. I completely recommend it! It’s a new favorite!

  • January 23, 2013 at 7:36 pm: Lily Vanilli

    AMaze! very nice indeed. It’s winter here so I substituted the basil for sauteed leek and it made a great sauce!

    thank you. :)

  • January 30, 2013 at 3:47 am: Hanna

    Made this one last night for your Pesto Risotto and it turned out SO creamy and delicious! I used all pecans, as I don’t care much for walnuts or pine nuts. I also subbed 1 t of dried thyme for the fresh variety. It was so very good. I mixed all of it in my Vitamix, and it was very smooth and emulsified. I might prefer it next time in a food processor, not quite so blended, but for the Risotto, it was perfect. Bravo, as always!

  • February 27, 2013 at 6:09 am: Chelsea

    I absolutely LOVE pesto…but I always had a problem with how much oil is always in it. Makes it feel greasy and takes away the freshness of the ingredients. And since becoming vegan Ive missed good pesto pastas.
    First time I made this (and every time since)…absolute HEAVEN. So fresh tasting and didn’t have the heavy oily feeling that normal pestos have. But just as creamy, toasty, and delicious.
    I love to pair it with my Lemon Asparagus and other sauteed/steamed vegetables. YUM!

  • March 19, 2013 at 4:56 am: Stephanie

    I hate pesto, really. I only make it every once in a while when I have too much basil leftover from another recipe. And I am always iffy about the small bits of basil in those recipes.

    But holy crap is this stuff good. I could eat a whole bowl of it with a spoon. It is amazing. We had it over pasta the other night are using it as a sauce for pita pizzas tonight. I have since bought a huge amount of basil to make pesto which I have never done before. Thx for the recipe ♥

  • April 24, 2013 at 5:10 pm: Kathleen

    My friend and I made a doubled batch of this recently and it was amazing! It was super easy to make and it went great with the gnocchi we made. An awesome find

  • April 28, 2013 at 7:59 am: Grace

    I was sceptical about this because of how good the VWAV pesto is, but not only was this really tasty, I think for pasta, it’s actually a better choice than the VWAV pesto. People worrying about the cilantro, I found the taste wasn’t actually very perceptible. The flavour was “basil plus something extra”, and if anything, I thought the thyme flavour was more obvious than the cilantro flavour. Overall, it’s got a lighter, fresher flavour than the VWAV pesto, and if you like to eat your pesto with wholemeal pasta, that’s of benefit!

  • May 3, 2013 at 12:52 am: Jennifer

    Holy sh!t This was awesome! It was my first time making pesto too and I’m really impressed that I didn’t screw it up. I used 1/2 cup of cashews and I didn’t quite have enough basil, so I used spinach and parsley. It was also my first time trying out nooch. We are licking our plates over here. I only wish I made some more, but it’s so easy so I’m sure I’ll make it again soon. Thanks for a great recipe!

    • May 3, 2013 at 2:46 am: IsaChandra

      Pesto successo!

  • June 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm: Tanya

    This is truly the bestest pesto! I planted a whole bunch of basil this year, partly to make sure I have enough to make and freeze a lot of this to eat through out the year. I made a double batch yesterday, the first of many. :) Thanks so much for this and all of your recipes!

  • August 14, 2013 at 6:03 am: Robyn

    What a wonderful recipe! I made it today and the family loved it! I did notice the pesto turning darker as our meal progressed, by the end of the meal it was dark green. I was worried that it would e black in a few hours, so to prevent that everyone was served an extra helping. Should I put more lemon juice to prevent browning? And maybe more olive oil.? Has anyone else experienced that? I haven’t seen that happen before.

  • August 17, 2013 at 6:14 am: Susanne

    Just wondering how long this would keep in the refrigerator? I am getting married in a couple of weeks, and am preparing a vegan feast for my guests, and want to make some big batches of pesto pasta as one of the dishes, but could do with getting as much preparation done beforehand as possible!

  • August 24, 2013 at 6:00 pm: Tracey Christianson

    I made your fab recipe. i used pistachio in place of pine nuts and lime instead of lemon because I had then on hand. Love, love, love it! I am going to farmers market to buy up supplies to make a HUGE batch. I love your blog and refer to it often. Thanks!

  • October 21, 2013 at 1:04 am: Beth

    Knowing I had fabulous plans for her made it easier to harvest my giant basil plant. She had such a glorious summer. Now it’s time for bestest pesto and gnocchi. One of my favorite things about being vegan is your ppk blog. Thank you for being out there in the universe Isa. You are the bestest, your own self. Isa does it indeed. She sure does!!<3

  • October 27, 2013 at 5:13 pm: Kristen

    Sounds delish! I’ll make this soon!

  • November 1, 2013 at 10:54 pm: Rani Sahani

    I just made it, kept triple checking because I couldn’t believe how EASY it was – and my mind is in splatter decor all over my kitchen wall because it was BLOWN out after just one taste!
    I honestly could weep – I am a very selfish vegan who eats this way because it makes my knees feel so much better but I feel tempted often to drop into a favourite restaurant and just “grab something” – but Isa, food like this, this pesto, it makes me wonder why I would ever put non-vegan food in my yum-hole ever again. I followed this recipe to the letter and just pulled myself away from standing over the pot where I was shovelling it in so I could say – THANK YOU!!!! Veg bless Lady! :) xoxoxox

    • November 2, 2013 at 1:47 pm: IsaChandra

      Haha, fun review, thanks!

  • December 29, 2013 at 12:41 am: Kristin

    I just made this pesto, but instead of the basil / cilantro I used baby kale. I also added red pepper flakes, since I add them to everything. It was soo delicious. Thank you for your amazing recipes Isa!!

  • January 22, 2014 at 7:30 am: Harriet

    I really don’t like cilantro. Any replacements? :)

  • March 9, 2014 at 10:43 am: Erika

    Wow this recipe sounds awesome and great for vegans like myself with the nutritional yeast. I have some fresh basil in the fridge that needs to be used ASAP though I’m missing a couple of your other ingredients, I may try to adapt it so I can enjoy this delightful recipe. I wonder how some Italian parsley would taste in there, and maybe pecans instead of walnuts? well, only one way to find out :) Thanks for the lovely write-up…

  • June 17, 2014 at 7:41 pm: Kit

    Basil is in season, and I thought it would be the perfect time to make some pesto!
    I made this recipe twice now, and I think I must be doing something wrong, as I always end up with only 1 cup of pesto, not 2! No matter how tightly I pack the greens into my measuring cup, I always end up with less than the recipe says it makes.

  • October 27, 2014 at 9:27 pm: CL

    I made it, tasted it, and wanted to eat it with a spoon

  • March 22, 2015 at 3:26 pm: cliff

    Can water and and pepper jack be omitted?

  • February 23, 2016 at 3:03 am: Alicia Jackson

    Isa, I just made this with spaghetti noodles, sun dried tomatoes, mushrooms and asparagus…I think I’ve died and gone to heaven. Seriously this recipe, your Pad Thai and Breakfast Nachos – I could live on those three meals for the rest of my life. After 6 years of being vegan, these are my 3 favorite all time recipes. (LOVE the nirvana enchilada casserole too!) Thank you for making our lives so yummy!

  • August 4, 2016 at 12:44 am: Jewel

    Just prepared your bestest pesto and tossed it w/ pasta and several cups of roasted summer squash, garlic and plum tomatoes. Magnificently delish!