Basil & Sunflower Seed Pesto – The Fundamentals of Homemade Pesto (FAK Friday)


Basil and Sunflower Seed Pesto & The Fundamentals of Homemade Pesto

Pesto might just be one of my favorite things in the culinary world. Period. It’s so fresh, and vibrant, and, well, green. I can’t think of a better example of how simple ingredients can come together in incredible ways. It also happens to be one of the most versatile condiments there is.

The most classic of all pestos are made with fresh basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, garlic, and olive oil. Simple and delicious. And yet, none of these ingredients are set in stone. They are like individual parts to a machine, independent from one another, yet all working together to make a whole. Once you understand the inner workings, each component can be plucked from its place and substituted with another, making it infinitely adaptable.

Basically what all this means is, you can use whatever ingredients you want! Once you’ve got the fundamentals, tinkering with the recipe is easy. (Just don’t tell the Italians.)

Basil and Sunflower Seed Pesto & The Fundamentals of Homemade Pesto

Basil can be substituted with most any other greens, from spinach or arugula, to parsley, radish greens, mint, or chives. Those oh-so-pricey pine nuts aren’t 100% necessary, either, and can be swapped for whatever nuts or seeds you like. Walnuts are a favorite of mine, but almonds, cashews, and even pistachios would work just as well. As for the parmesan, any hard cheese will do (pecorino is a great, less-expensive substitute), or it can be left out all together if you’d prefer to make your pesto vegan (just be sure to add an extra pinch of salt). And of course, other ad-ins are always welcome. A splash of lemon juice, a bit of rosemary or sage, a touch of red chili flakes… the only requirement when it comes to making your own pesto is that each ingredient be as fresh and flavorful as possible.

I guess what I’m trying to saying is, pesto is all about you. Whatever you like, how you like it, put into a blender and lathered on everything. That’s what I’m talking about.

Luckily for us pesto lovers, there are just as many ways to use the stuff as there are options for making it. Some of my favorites are:

  • As a sauce on pasta (thin the pesto slightly with a ladle full of pasta water – this will also help the pesto cling to the noodles). (Find my recipe for Caprese Pasta Salad, here.)
  • Spread on a slice of fresh, crusty bread. It doesn’t get much better than that, unless you want to go ahead and put some tomato and mozzarella on there, too.
  • Swirled or braided into a loaf of homemade bread. Preferably with lots of parmesan baked on top.
  • Served atop fish or other seafood. (You can check out my recipe for Tilapia with Arugula Walnut Pesto, here.)
  • As a marinade or dressing for meat, fish, or tofu.
  • Tossed with warm, roasted potatoes or other vegetables. Or, mashed into potatoes. Actually, I just thought of that one, but it sounds amazing.
  • Or, oozing out of a grilled cheese sandwich, served with a bowl of garden fresh tomato soup. (Sounds pretty incredible, doesn’t it? Get the recipe here)
And that only scratches the surface.

Basil and Sunflower Seed Pesto Ice Cubes

My other favorite thing to do with pesto is to freeze it. This way I always have it on hand, and when I make a big batch (anyone have a bunch of fresh herbs to use up? anyone?) it doesn’t go to waste. I always prefer homemade pesto to store bought, and being able to thaw a few tablespoons whenever I want is pretty much my definition of awesome.
I like to freeze my pesto in an ice cube tray (1-2 TBSP per cube), then pop the cubes into a zip-top baggie for easy access. I always try to remember to make a big batch at the end of summer so I can have fresh pesto all winter long!

Fresh Basil

Alright, enough raving about how versatile this stuff is… let’s get on to the recipe. This is a super basic version, and a great go-to for me whenever I have an abundance of basil in the garden. This time I opted to use sunflower seeds in place of pine nuts, but you could swap these for whatever you like. In fact, feel free to use this recipe as a guide, and swap things out according to your tastes, or to use what you have on hand.What’s your favorite way to use pesto? Let me know in the comments below!
Recipe notes: one thing I almost always do when making pesto is to roast my garlic before hand. I like a lot of garlic, but it can sometimes be spicy and overpowering if it’s raw. See my tutorial on how to roast your own garlic here: How To Roast Garlic – A Rose By Any Other Name
Feel free to play around with the ingredients in this recipe to your liking. Basil can be swapped for other herbs or tender leafy greens, and the sunflower seeds can be subbed with other seeds or roasted nuts. To make this pesto vegan, just leave out the parmesan cheese.
Simple Basil & Sunflower Seed Pesto
Makes about 1 cup – can easily be doubled or tripled
1 1/2 cups fresh basil, packed
1/4 – 1/2 cup roasted sunflower seeds (or pine nuts, walnuts, or other nuts, toasted)
5-6 cloves garlic, roasted (or 1-2 cloves raw)
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice, to taste (I usually use about half a lemon – start with 1-2 TBSP, and add more as needed)
1/2-1 cup good quality olive oil, as needed
Big pinch of salt, to taste
Fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
1.    In the bowl of a food processor, combine the basil, sunflower seeds (or nuts), garlic, parmesan, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Begin blending.
2.    While blending, drizzle in the olive oil to reach the desired consistency. You can make your pesto as thick or thin as you like.
3.    Season to taste with salt and pepper, and add a more lemon juice as needed — if the pesto tastes flat, usually a pinch more salt and a squeeze more lemon is all it needs. Pulse to combine.
4.    Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two weeks, or freeze for up to 6 months.

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21 Responses to Basil & Sunflower Seed Pesto – The Fundamentals of Homemade Pesto (FAK Friday)

  1. Hari Chandana July 6, 2013 at 4:56 am #

    Wonderful post.. thanks for sharing!!

  2. movita beaucoup July 6, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    I love, love, love pesto! On pasta is my favourite – simple and traditional. I’m sad to say that I haven’t been roasting my garlic before adding it to my pesto, which seems like the best idea ever. I will get on it tout suite!!

    Again, I must complain about your photos. They are too gorgeous. They are going to break the interwebs.

    • Willow Arlen July 7, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

      Heheh, thanks! I’m a big fan of roasted garlic… doesn’t really matter what the application is. Roasting just makes things better.

  3. mimi rippee July 6, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    I hope the Italian pesto purists won’t come after you like they did me! I personally love mixing it up with different herbs and nuts/seeds. Why not?!!!

    • Willow Arlen July 7, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

      Haha, uh-oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Honestly, I’m a huge fan of traditional basil and pine nut pesto, but I think if you aren’t willing to change things up you’re going to miss out on a whole lot of tasty possibilities. The traditional recipe is traditional because it’s good, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that’s good!

  4. shannon weber July 11, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    yay for pesto! because it IS really all about the person making it and what they like. Since i grow a massive amount of basil in the summer, i’m constantly making basil pesto, but normally i sub the pine nuts (expensive, yes) for walnuts. I’m definitely trying sunflower seeds when i get home to the garden, because that sounds delicious!
    we must have twin brains right now, b/c i’m working on an assignment for a magazine and just created a pesto for that – a fennel frond pesto, and it is delicious. fennel fronds work REALLY well (who knew?) and the result is a really green, really lovely accompaniment to bread or fish dishes.
    i have read somewhere that it’s easier to freeze pesto sans cheese; i’ve frozen it both ways, but i think there’s some truth to that? maybe in the length of time it stays good, but i’ve seen where people recommend if you’re freezing it to leave the cheese out until you use it.

    • Willow Arlen July 11, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

      That’s a great tip, Shannon! I’ve heard that it’s better to leave the cheese out when freezing, but have never tried it. It makes sense that it would last a little longer, but thus far I haven’t had a need for it to last more than a few months in the freezer (what can I say, when I have pesto around I find ways to use it, haha). And you should definitely try the sunflower seeds — it came to me on a whim, and I love it!

  5. Lauren July 15, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

    I love the rustic color of the soup! And nothing beats anything caprese!

  6. Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes July 25, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Oh man I should have read this post days ago- I do not know what I was thinking freezing a massive amount of pesto all in one shot- DUH ice cube trays, I obviously was not thinking. I never thought to add crushed red pepper to pesto, love that idea!

  7. Awed... July 29, 2013 at 4:06 am #

    Have you made any without the cheese before?

    • Willow Arlen July 29, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

      I have made pesto without cheese before. I usually end up adding a pinch more salt than I usually do, because parmesan can be pretty salty, but season to taste and it turns out just fine. :)

  8. Jodi September 14, 2015 at 8:38 am #

    To keep this raw…I used the cashew parmasean cheese I had on hand…organic garlic powder..super delicious…and I love the idea of freezing the Pesto…awesome idea..thank you so much for sharing


    • Willow Arlen September 21, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

      Thanks, Jodi! Love that you used cashew cheese in place of the parm. Great idea!

  9. Joyce August 23, 2016 at 8:17 pm #

    Wow, I love the idea of freezing them in an ice tray. I was thinking about using ziplock bags. Now I know what I should do with all the basils in the garden (before bugs eat them all)!

    • Willow Arlen August 23, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

      Oh yes, ice trays are so useful for freezing little portions! I do suggest keeping a separate ice tray for savory foods like this, though, because the plastic can absorb flavors and then impart them into water if you make regular ice. Other than that, they work great!

  10. Karin May 19, 2017 at 9:25 pm #

    I love homemade pesto and never will purchase it again. One thing though. I find that in a salad it turns brown pretty fast. So, I tried something new. I blanch my basil for 30 seconds and then shock in ice water for a couple minutes. I squeeze out all the water and continue with the recipe. My pesto is always bright green and never turns brown. I also make in big batches and freeze in little 1/2 cup containers. Awesome!

  11. Wendy Forth August 3, 2017 at 11:12 am #

    My son is allergic to tree nuts so I tried my classic pesto recipe with sunflower seeds last year and thought I was being original…lol. It turned out great and for large amounts was much cheaper. I gift a lot of my pesto and jams etc so freeze and can in small jars. (125 ml) with the understanding that if they bring them back they can have refills.
    Great ideas here..I will try them all.

    • Willow Arlen August 10, 2017 at 2:19 pm #

      That’s fantastic, Wendy! And hey, I thought I was being original too, but I’m sure I’m not the first either. You have some very lucky friends, to get pesto and jam as gifts!

  12. Joan Flynn July 9, 2020 at 1:00 pm #

    Nasturtium leaves and flowers make a “spicy” pesto! Very green and very delicious!

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