Pesto Pasta

Ah, lovely pesto! Summer is here and so is the fresh basil. “But don’t you need oil and cheese to make pesto?” No way! These ingredients are traditional, but they can be simply omitted, resulting in a sauce that is much lighter and fresher in taste.


Pesto is an Italian oil-and-herb sauce, with garlic, pine nuts, and cheese. Given that I do not cook with oil or dairy, I simply left out the oil and cheese but kept the nuts (walnuts instead of pine nuts) and other ingredients.

Since oil is so traditional in pesto, you will notice the lack of fat/richness and the slipperiness when combined with noodles. But this is not a deal-breaker in my opinion, since you still get that wonderful punch of fresh basil and garlic, and a subtle richness from the nuts.

Overall, it is a fresher, lighter sauce that is very versatile in use and preparation (see Notes below). Happy pesto-ing!

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup walnuts (1-1/2 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1 bunch fresh basil (30-40 large leaves, or about 2 ounces)
1 package (12-16 ounces) cooked pasta (spaghetti, fettuccini, vermicelli), to serve 4
Optional: 2 tablespoons walnuts

1. In a food processor, blend all ingredients until smooth (1 to 2 minutes), adding a bit of water as needed to thin.

2. Return the just-cooked and drained pasta to its cooking pot with the heat on medium-low, and add the pesto, stirring for 2-3 minutes until the pasta is completely coated and the pesto is warmed through (adding water as needed). Serve immediately as is, or with sautéed vegetables such as mushrooms, summer squash, onions, and fresh tomatoes. Optional: serve with grated walnuts on top (using a rotary cheese grater). See Notes for other serving ideas.

Preparation: 15 minutes
Serves: 4 (makes about 3/4 cup of sauce)


Nuts: If you don’t have walnuts on hand, use another kind of soft nut, such as raw, unsalted cashews or pine nuts (or a mix; walnuts and pine nuts together is nice). Pine nuts are very traditional in pesto, but they are not always easy to find, and they can be very expensive ($25 to $30 a pound), but they do add a very rich, distinctive flavor. All nuts are high in calories and fat, so if you’re watching your calories, omit the nuts or reduce the amount (or add some white beans in place of some of the nuts). The pesto will not be as rich, but once added to pasta and vegetables, it will still have that great basil and garlic taste.

Garlic: Pesto is known for its strong garlic punch, so experiment with different amounts of garlic to match your tastes. Raw garlic can be irritating to some stomachs, so an option is to sauté the minced garlic in a little water prior to adding it to the food processor (if I do this, I will double the garlic amount since the flavor mellows quite a bit when cooked).

Adding greens: You may also substitute half the basil with greens, such as 1/2 cup parsley or spinach, or 1 to 2 leaves of kale or chard. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice is also nice.

Other uses for pesto: I also like to use this pesto with steamed potatoes, as a seasoning for French fries (before baking), stirred into cooked rice, as a salad dressing, in a veggie wrap, or simply over sliced tomatoes.


Above: Basil is known for its sweet smell and strong taste. It’s native to India and other tropical regions of Asia. There are many varieties of basil, but “sweet basil” (above) is most commonly used in the US and in Italian cooking, as opposed to “Thai basil” and “holy basil,” which are used most in Asia.


Above: The finished pesto sauce, with a touch of kale added in.


Above: Toss wedge French fries with pesto sauce before baking for a light seasoning.


Above: Pesto Pasta made with brown rice fettuccini, with walnuts ground on top (using a rotary cheese grater to grind the walnuts).


Above: Boiled potatoes with pesto sauce and ground walnuts.

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  1. Tom says

    Beautiful summer recipe. Thanks Cathy. I’ve even reduced the nuts in half at times and added same amount.of white cannellini beans. Saves some fat, still really tasty.

  2. Cindy says

    This looks yummy!!! Was wondering what I could make and take over to my girlfriend’s house for her Birthday Dinner…..think this might be a winner!

  3. says

    Another option is to boil, together with pasta, 1 diced potato and a bunch of green beans, strain and then season all together with the pesto sauce. This is the traditional way they do in Liguria (where pesto comes from).

    • says

      Funny you should say that; I’m eating the leftover pesto sauce now with some potato, soba pasta, green beans, kale and tomoatoes! :) Thanks for the tip!

  4. Andrea R says

    My five year old has his own garden this year and has 4 basil plants. I have been telling him we should make pesto because he really likes basil (even though it’s a green leafy thing-OH MY!) I think I am going to give this a go with him tonight! Would sliced almonds work? I think that may all be what I have on hand at the moment.

  5. Christina says

    I just made this for dinner and it was fantastic! Who knew all that oil and cheese would never be missed!

  6. Diana says

    Delicious recipe. But I am I doing something wrong? Mine began to turn brown shortly after I made it.

    • says

      Hi Diana, Hmm, I’ve made mine many times and not had that issue; so not sure. Did you do any substitutions? A bit of lemon juice may help.

      • Diana says

        No substitutions BUT I did use a combination of 3 types of basil…regular Italian green, spicy globe and thai. Maybe the thai is the culprit as it has a hint of purple in its plant. I have sooo much growing in my garden of 4 different kinds (I also have all purple but didn’t use in the pesto). I’ll give it another whirl with all green. Thanks for such a great website! Love your food!

  7. Andrea says

    when you weigh the 2 oz of basil, is that including the stems or just the leaves? do you have an approx. measurement (like 1 cup packed/loose, ect?) Thanks!

    • says

      Hi Andrea, I don’t use stems, so just the leaves. I tried measuring by cup, and it just seemed that it would be too variable. But if you end up doing a bit more or less than I did, that’s fine. :)

      • Andrea R says

        Thanks Cathy! I realize you didn;t use the stems, I was just wondering if you bought a 2 oz package (would they even sell that size?) I imagine they woudl count the stems in the weight……I’m pregnant (please excuse the stupid questions! :-) ) I tried this last night and now I know what I did wrong. I doubled it, but didn’t double the basil. I did half walnuts, half pinenuts. Since I doubled everything (including the water) it was WAY too runny! I added a bit more nuts and all the left over basil I had (I had started with a huge bag from the farmers market, but with just the leaves it was about 2.5 oz. We also added some lemon and nutritional yeast and Salt(I know….I working on it!) becasue it lacked flavor (now I know why)-but still, both my 3 and 5 year old asked for seconds! I will make this again and use the correct basil measurments next time! Thanks!

  8. says

    Perfect timing as I just bought fresh basil at the Farmer’s Market. Beautiful photographs that just make me want to take a bite! I am so delighted to have found your blog and have passed on the link to my daughter.

  9. says

    Hi Cathy – I am new to your blog and loving the recipes :) This one looks delish – I am wondering however, if this would taste good with spaghetti squash or zucchini pasta, rather than traditional pasta. Have you tried it this way at all? Would love to hear your thoughts on it!

      • Andrea R says

        Hi Cassie-I actually ate it this way and it was yummy. I actually threw some fresh cut tomatoes in a non-stick pan to soften and and threw in the zucchini pasta as well then added the pesto by the spoonful till the right consistency. It was Really yummy-try it!

  10. Lynn says

    Thanks for this wonderful recipe! I used pecans as the nut ingredient, and it still turned out great. Gina’s comment describes me perfectly – standing over the food processor eating it with a spoon.

  11. says

    Thanks a lot.
    Pesto pasta is one of my favorites. I have always made the pesto using oil and pine nuts, but this variation look fantastic.

  12. says

    Wow! This is the best pesto recipe I’ve ever tasted! I have to admit I was skeptical about leaving out salt. I usually add white miso paste to my pesto sauces to give it that “umami” flavor, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out it doesn’t need it. I did add the juice of a small lemon, and I sprinkled a bit of nutritional yeast on the pesto pasta. The flavors of the basil, walnuts, and garlic really shine without the salt. Yay!

  13. Laraine Arian says

    Hi Cathy, this pesto recipe and your cole slaw look fantastic==I can’t wait to try them!! and your presentation is delightful !! See you at True North soon. :Laraine

  14. Erika says

    Well! Cathy Fisher nails it again! This. Was. Delicious. The processed-in raw walnuts add just the right amount of richness (so much so you don’t miss the traditional oil at all), while at the same time the sauce is light and fresh — you don’t feel bogged own after this pesto.

    I did add fresh lemon juice and a bunch of chopped dino kale, and I used a quinoa/corn blend pasta.

    Thanks for another winning recipe — blue ribbon yum.

  15. Katie Drew says

    What are the calories or nutrition on just the pesto. And do you have to use fresh or would herbs from a container you buy okay…the stuff already chopped

    • says

      Hi Katie, I don’t calculate calories at this point; maybe in the future. If you mean dried herbs, those won’t work. But if it’s fresh in a container, that is fine. :)

  16. Nathalie says

    Cathy, thank you so much for this and all your beautiful recipes! I grew up on pesto, and even after being vegan for years, have yet to find the perfect recipe. Can’t wait to try this!!

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