Most pesto recipes involve pine nuts which are pretty pricey and don’t offer a huge flavour for their price. And that’s why I’ve swapped them out for nutty sunflower seeds in my simple Sunflower Seed Pesto recipe. If you’re not a fan of sunflower seed flavour, this may not be for you.
Sunflower seeds are around 4x cheaper at my local supermarket than pine nuts. That’s a big saving! The sort of saving I love. And I actually think my sunflower seeds pesto is tastier than a normal, classic pesto.
How to Make Sunflower Seed Pesto
A detailed recipe with full quantities can be found in the recipe card at the bottom of this page.
Step 1: Toasting any seeds or nuts in a dry pan for a few minutes over medium heat will release their oils and intensify the flavour. So toast the sunflower seeds in a pan for 3 minutes or so.
Step 2: Pop the sunflower seeds into a food processor along with the basil leaves and garlic, then blitz until everything is roughly chopped. You’re going to process it a lot more but you want to form a rough paste.
Step 3: With the processor running, slowly pour the olive oil into the blender until it becomes a pesto with some texture. You’re not making a smooth, pourable sauce!
Step 4: Once you have a pesto consistency, add the cheese and then pulse a little more until the cheese is mixed in. You can give it a taste and then adjust accordingly.
Any Nuts or Seeds Will Work
It might sound fancy but most nuts or seeds will work in place of pine nuts in a pesto. I’ve used sunflower seeds here but you could use walnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds or hazlenuts.
Now you’ve got a jar of sunflower seed pesto, how do you use it? Are the uses the same as a classic pesto sauce?
- Pasta Sauce: This is the most obviously use. Simply toss your cooked pasta with the pesto and serve with a sprinkle of cheese. If you want to bulk it out then I love to add steamed broccoli and peas to the pasta.
- Spread for Sandwiches or Wraps: It adds a lot of flavour and can be used in place of mayo or mustard. I love using it in a grilled cheese toastie.
- Dressing for Salads: Thin the pesto with a bit of vinegar and extra oil and use it to dress salads. It essentially becomes a basil vinaigrette.
- Topping for Grilled or Roasted Meats: It adds a fresh, herby flavour to chicken, pork, or steak. Once grilled, immediately drizzle over the pesto.
- Stuffing for Chicken Breasts: Butterfly a chicken breast, then spread over your sunflower seed pesto. Add a slice of mozzarella, and then roll the breast back up. Before baking, you can wrap it in prosciutto and hold it together with toothpicks.
If you want to mix it up then you can try some of these tweaks that I like:
- Change the Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, or pumpkin seeds each add their own unique flavour and texture. Experiment with different combinations to see what you like best.
- Add Citrus: Citrus zest can brighten up the pesto and add a layer of freshness. Try lemon for a classic flavour, or orange for something different.
- Add Greens: Spinach, kale, or rocket can complement or replace the basil.
- Add Cheese Varieties: Different cheeses offer different flavours and textures. Pecorino Romano is saltier, Asiago is sweeter, and using a vegan cheese substitute can make this pesto fit into a vegan diet.
- Spice It Up: A pinch of red pepper flakes can give the pesto a slight kick, enhancing the overall flavour and adding a touch of heat.
- Roasted Garlic: Roasted garlic is sweeter and more mellow than raw garlic. Wrap a whole bulb in foil, then roast for around 45 minutes. You can then pop a few cloves into the processor and reserve the rest in the fridge.
- Use Different Oils: Avocado oil or walnut oil can give your pesto a different flavour profile. Try not to pick anything too overpowering though as it will ruin the flavour of the basil.
- Add Anchovies or Capers: These can contribute an umami, briny flavour to your pesto. They are both quite salty, so adjust your salt level accordingly.
Before you know it, you’ll have your own crazy, unique pesto combinations to show off to people you have around for dinner. Pumpkin seed and rocket pesto? Pistachio and lemon pesto? Spicy roasted garlic pesto? Kale and sunflower seed pesto?
This recipe will make quite a large jar of pesto which you won’t use in one sitting. Here are the best ways to store it:
Refrigerate: Put your sunflower seed pesto into an airtight container or a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Pour a thin layer of olive oil on top of the pesto before sealing it.
This oil layer helps preserve the pesto’s bright color and freshness. Properly stored, it will last for up to one week in the refrigerator.
Freeze: To freeze your pesto, place it in an ice cube tray and freeze until solid. Once the pesto cubes are frozen, transfer them to a sealable freezer bag or container.
This method lets you defrost just the right amount of pesto when needed. Frozen sunflower seed pesto can last for up to 3 months.
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