Technique Guide: Oil-Free Pesto Variations

It's pesto time! This bright, flavorful, super-green condiment is one of my favorites. I love dolloping it on salads and flatbreads, tossing it with grilled veggies, and drizzling it on fresh tomato slices. Basil pesto! Cilantro pesto! Mint pesto! With so many flavor combinations, the possibilities are endless.

Above: Cilantro-lime pesto on a simple salad with tomatoes, english cucumbers, sugar snap peas, avocado, and microgreens.

Traditionally, pesto is based in oil. And while the oil makes it super flavorful and luxurious, I don't generally love eating a ton of oil at once. This is a problem for those of us who like to slather A LOT of pesto on things...

But never fear, I have an oil-free solution that's sure to rock your pesto world! My secret green, light, veggie-powered pesto base is... get ready for it... zucchini!

 Above: Basil pesto gets swirled into green hummus (colored with spirulina!) for an artsy effect.

Yes, indeed, it turns out that the humble zucchini makes an excellent pesto base. Since it's already green, it doesn't mess with the color of the pesto. And since it's essentially flavorless (no offense, zucchini), it really allows the herbs to shine through. Plus it's vegan, packed with veggie nutrients, and is super light, meaning you can drizzle and dollop to your heart's content.

The zucchini gives the pesto tons of body without weighing it down. It makes for a really luxurious, velvety texture and a nice pale color. Unlike oil-based pesto, zucchini pesto won't get gloppy and won't separate.

Here's how to do it!

Above: Quinoa Caprese salad with orange heirloom tomatoes, local feta, pine nuts, microgreens, and basil-lemon pesto.

Element #1: Herbs
Obviously, you need herbs! The amounts below assume 2 heaping cups of herbs, but adjust as needed.

You can use whatever you like here. Basil pesto is of course the classic, although some people like to throw in a bit of parsley. Cilantro pesto is my personal favorite. Mint pesto is fun, and a great way to use up mint if it's taking over your yard. Or you can combine!

Above: Check out those big dollops of pesto on my Grilled and Raw Spring Salad!

Element #2: Zucchini
You'll want to use one SMALL zucchini per two cups of herbs. Since zucchini vary so much in size, I suggest cutting it up and adding a bit at a time. You can always add more but you can't take it away.

 Above: The makings of something tasty!

Element #3: Citrus
I love cooking with citrus, and always make my pesto with a citrusy pop. I like to use a full lime or lemon worth of juice, but scale back if you're not citrus-obsessed like I am. Bonus points for using the zest as well as the juice! Like with the zucchini, if you're in doubt about the amount, start small and add incrementally.

In terms of pairing, I prefer to use lemon with basil and parsley since those flavors to me are reminiscent of Italian cuisine. Conversely, I always use lime with cilantro or mint since those flavors make me think of Mexico or the Caribbean. But do what makes you happy!

Above: Pesto is the best soup garnish. This is my Roasted Broccoli and Lemon Soup swirled with a generous amount of basil-lemon pesto.

Element #4: Salt!
This is critical for really making the flavors pop. I like to start with about a quarter to a half teaspoon per two cups of herbs, taste, and adjust upward as needed.

Element #5: Nuts (optional)
Some people love nuts in their pesto, others don't. I add them occasionally, but not as a matter of routine. Nuts are so expensive, I'd rather save them for an application where they really shine (like heaping on top of the salad!) rather than burying them in the pesto.

If you like to add nuts, go for it! I like using pine nuts or walnuts in basil pesto since the flavors complement each other well. I wouldn't recommend almonds since they're really hard, and no one wants crunchy pesto.

Above: Pesto on guacamole?? Absolutely! This basil and pine nut pesto graced one of the options in my Guacamole Flight.

Element #6: Garlic or other spices
To garlic or not to garlic, that is the question. If I add garlic, I use just a clove or two and always grill it first, since I don't want the raw garlic to overtake my fresh basil. But you do you. If you love garlic, go wild!

What about other spices? Again, do what makes you happy. I occasionally add a dash of cumin to cilantro pesto to add some complexity. But generally speaking, I like the pesto to be a bright, fresh, cooling element rather than a spiced one.

Above: Why is pesto+eggs such a good combination? This is a slice of Upside-Down Frittata with basil-lemon pesto.

Pesto comes together in a snap. Just put all your ingredients in a blender, blast it until you have a smooth consistency, taste, and adjust as necessary. As described above, you can add the zucchini gradually to achieve the texture you're looking for.

To freeze your pesto, just put it in a resealable plastic bag and lay it flat until fully frozen. You can make pesto like crazy during the summer when herbs are abundant, then take out those little bursts of freshness and sunshine all throughout the winter.

 Above: The finished product! I'm definitely not missing all the oil. Plus, you can always drizzle a bit of oil on top, where it will really be noticeable.

Happy pesto-ing!

Please share your creation so I can see how you've interpreted the concept! Tag "The Rogue Brussel Sprout" on Facebook or hashtag #theroguebrusselsprout on Instagram. 

Are you loving the idea of making all your own condiments at home? Me too! Take a look at my Guide to Homemade Mustard and you'll never have to walk down the condiment aisle again.


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