5-Minute Vegan Cashew Pesto

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Using just half a dozen ingredients, my 5-minute vegan cashew pesto is so simple to make, and fantastic on pasta, baked potatoes, crostini, or even as a dip for chips and nibbles!

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Pesto is something I make so often, that until recently, it never occurred to me to blog it. However, since my friends and family keep asking me for my recipe, I thought it high time I did something about it.

This is my main vegan pesto recipe but I have many, many variations (and they almost always happen on the fly!).

Pesto Alla Genovese

Pesto, originally hailing from Genova in Northern Italy, owes its name to the Genovese dialect word, pestâ, which simply means ‘to pound’, and is simply a generic term for anything which is pounded in a mortar, using a pestle.

Recognise the similar word there? Pestâ – pestle – pesto.

Naming a food after its preparation method is something I found a lot when we lived in Thailand – for example, som tam, which simply means ‘sour pounded’, or tom yam… which means ‘boiled salad’!

Watching the new year’s sun rise from our apartment on Via dei Marsano in Genova was a beautiful experience.

Pesto history

Pesto, in its earliest form, dates back to the ancient Romans, who, like their later northern counterparts, simply named it moretum, after its method of preparation in a mortarium (mortar). Contemporary writings tell us that this Roman pesto consisted of garlic, herbs, cheese, salt, vinegar, and of course, olive oil.

Fast-forward a few centuries, and we know from extant documents that during the middle ages, in Genova, people were making it with garlic and walnuts. Basil is not mentioned by name , however, until 1863, in Giovanni Battista Ratto’s cookbook, La Cuciniera Genovese:

Take a clove of garlic, basil or, when that is lacking, marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch and Parmigiano cheese and mix them with pine nuts and crush it all together in a mortar with a little butter until reduced to a paste. Then dissolve it with good and abundant oil. Lasagne and Trofie are dressed with this mash, made more liquid by adding a little hot water without salt.

(Obviously, this is a translation!)

Frontispiece from the 1877 impression of La Cuciniera Genovese | Collezione Falzone del Barbarò

Is pesto vegan?

Sadly not. At least, not traditional pesto because along with basil, garlic, pine nuts, and olive oil, it contains Pecorino, which, being made with rennet, is not even vegetarian, let alone vegan.

For a long time, when I made my own, I would simply omit the cheese, and add extra pine nuts and oil. Sometimes I’d add sun-dried tomatoes, olives, or spinach.

I still add these things from time to time but it wasn’t until I was living in India in 2013, and learned about cashew cream, that my vegan pesto really came into its own.

Vegan pesto with cashews

One day, when Usha and I were chatting while cooking together, she told me that she loves to make Italian food, and it suddenly occurred to me that cashew cream in pesto could work really well.

A few months later, when I was visiting Europe – and had access to Mediterranean basil – I experimented, and yes, it totally worked!

Using cashew cream not only gives the pesto a rich and creamy texture, it also means I need less oil and fewer pine nuts, which of course, means fewer calories. Huzzah!

Are pine nuts necessary for pesto?

In fact, given how expensive they are to buy, unless I’m making pesto for a special occasion, and really want to push the boat out, I just don’t bother with pine nuts these days. The kernels of sunflower seeds make a good pine nut substitute though, and I’ve been using them a fair bit lately.

My vegan cashew pesto is delicious and satisfying, nutritious, and easy to make – and no animals have suffered to make it. In my book, that’s a clear win. Of course it doesn’t taste exactly the same as pesto alla Genovese… but it does taste like Heaven!


Vegan pesto ingredients

You only need a handful of basic ingredients to make this vegan pesto…

  • raw cashews
  • hot water
  • fresh basil
  • nutritional yeast flakes
  • roasted garlic
  • olive oil
  • lemon juice
  • Optional: salt and sunflower seeds

How to make pesto

It really couldn’t be simpler to make this vegan pesto… and it involves no pounding with a mortar and pestle at all. Unless you want to, of course!

  • Place the cashews into a blender or food processor, and blitz until you have a fine meal.
  • Add the water, a little at a time, and continue to process until the cashews form a thick cream.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients, and blitz again for 30-60 seconds, until you have a coarse paste.
  • Serve with your favourite pasta, on top of baked potatoes, on pizza, or anywhere you’d usually use pesto.
  • For added decadence, sprinkle over a couple of spoonfuls of my vegan parmesan.

Pesto-making tips

  • For variation, add a few sun-dried tomatoes or black olives.
  • If you fancy a change from basil, peas work really well too, and if you’re using frozen ones, you don’t even need to cook them first, just defrost, and then blitz with the rest of the ingredients.
  • Similarly, a few handfuls of baby spinach or rocket make great basil alternatives.
  • If you have a high-speed blender, you don’t need to soak the cashews first.
  • Store any leftovers in the ‘fridge in an airtight container for up to three days.
  • This vegan pesto can be frozen for up to three months.

What can I use pesto for?

Oh gosh, so many things! My vegan pesto is perfect on pasta, great on gnocchi, and brilliant on baked potatoes. You can spread it on crostini, over pizza instead of tomato sauce, use it as a dip, or in a grilled cheese sandwich. If you thin it out a bit, either with water or olive oil, you can even use it as a salad dressing. It really is that versatile!

Whatever you have yours with, I know you’re going to love it! Buon appetito!

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