Pesto: Pantry Possibilities

— Written By

Having a foundation for your favorite dishes allows you to make the things you love several different ways. Sometimes, it’s about combining items creatively in order to avoid food waste. Other times, it’s simply about trying to use what you already have on hand. When trips to the grocery store are limited, or you just plain don’t have time, it’s comforting to be able to find alternatives to the dishes you love.

Pesto is an easy, nutritious addition to a dish. The best part? It can be almost anything you want it to be. You can choose the flavors you want to highlight, add, and subtract. Making pesto is a great option for throwing something together at home, using what you have to create a delicious dish full of flavor. A boring pasta becomes a tasty, green-loaded dish. Rice is tossed in bell pepper-goodness. Roasted veggies are coated in tasty flavors from the garden.

The chart below compares a traditional pesto with the variety of options you could choose to create your own. To create your pesto you will need a food processor or a blender:

Traditional Pesto Substitutions and Other Options
Nuts / Protein

  • small handful raw pine nuts


Nuts / Protein

  • any other variety of nut you choose (cashews, pistachios, walnut… etc.)
  • cooked or canned beans, drained (great northern / white beans, chickpeas / garbanzo beans… etc.)

nutrition tip: if you have a nut allergy, or simply don’t like them, try adding beans for protein


Greens / Vegetables

  • 1 large bunch basil (leaves only)
  • 3 cloves garlic
Greens / Vegetables

  • any leafy green of choice (spinach – fresh or frozen, arugula, spring mix, etc.)
  • fresh or frozen peas
  • fresh, frozen, or canned items like tomatoes and peppers
  • forage for seasonal greens in your yard, like chickweed and redbud

nutrition tips:

  • you can use any combination of items from either column; you don’t have to pick just one!
  • choose flavors you like most
  • note: if you prefer thicker sauces beware that some items, like fresh tomatoes and peppers, will add more liquid to your mixture when blended

  • about ¾ cup loosely packed grated parmesan



  • any DRY grated cheese you choose (pecorino is a good substitute)

nutrition tip: for allergies, intolerance, or personal preference you can omit the cheese entirely and add more of your protein choice (above) OR use nutritional yeast as a substitute

Oil and Spice

  • 2 to 3 Tbsp olive oil (or more to taste)
Oil and Spice

  • any additional spices you’d like to complement your pesto (try a pinch of salt, ¾ tsp cracked black pepper, and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes to give it some kick)


Blend or process your items to a paste-like consistency. You can add more liquid if you would like a soupier consistency (water or more olive oil). If you have a soupy consistency and you would like to thicken your pesto, try adding more nuts, beans, cheese, or nutritional yeast (or any combination of these).


Don’t be afraid to sample a little spoonful while you’re completing your pesto. This will help YOU discover YOUR preferred consistency and flavor combination.


Another testament to pesto’s versatility is the variety of ways in which you can use it. You can toss your prepared pasta, gnocchi, and rice in it (choose whole grain and brown whenever possible). You can top your prepared meat with it; steak, fish and seafood, and chicken. You can marinate and sear your meat using the pesto. You can coat raw vegetables in it and roast them OR roast your vegetables first and add the pesto as a fresh sauce. You can use pesto as a salad dressing or a dip, as a pizza sauce or spread on sandwiches. Explore and be creative. The possibilities for enjoying your pesto are endless!Pesto Coated Pasta

Written By

Amanda Butalla, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionAmanda ButallaExtension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences Call Amanda E-mail Amanda N.C. Cooperative Extension, Ashe County Center
Updated on Apr 29, 2020
Was the information on this page helpful? Yes check No close
Scannable QR Code to Access Electronic Version