Do you remember your first time? I do.

It was 1983. We were in Vermont, renting a house with a group of friends for the weekend, among them Fabio, from Italy. We took turns making dinner. Fabio made pasta with pesto. After that night, there was no going back to red sauce for me.

To this day, pesto is my favorite food. Tossed with penne or gemelli and ample amounts of crisp-sweet broccolini; smeared on crostini, cherry tomato on top; dolloped onto a bowl of steamy vegetable soup; smothered on pillowy-with-a-crunch pan-fried gnocchi; the base of a summer-fresh pizza; mixed in a salad of fusilli, fresh arugula, basil and tomatoes.

When I quit eating dairy, pesto was my final frontier. Pesto without parmesan? No other food tested my commitment to a plant-based diet so intensely.

And then.

I interviewed my friend Seba, an Italian plant-based food investor, food snob (in the best sense of the word), Tuscan wine-maker, and chef. Seba told me, “Use fresh basil and garlic, and high-quality olive oil. Parmesan isn’t necessary.”

I disagreed. (But give it a try, and see for yourself).

And now, because I like you, and because I love cows, I am going to share what I learned during my months-long quest to discover Winning Plant-Based Pesto:

  • Follow Your Heart Parmesan (shreds, not chunk) is so good, I am certain neither Seba nor Fabio would detect them in my pesto. (Violife and Whole Foods brands are good too, but I prefer Follow Your Heart).
  • No plant-based cheese will win a blind taste test against dairy cheese. A hearty, flavor-packed pesto needs a salty, slightly musty flavor. That’s what Follow Your Heart delivers.
  • Basil is not the only herb that makes mind-blowing pesto. Fennel fronds? Who knew? (Be open, and click below).
  • Pine nuts make my taste buds sing, but as their price has skyrocketed …in the words of John Lennon, all I am saying is give walnuts and sunflower seeds a chance.
  • Scads of vegan pesto recipes call for nutritional yeast. Do not do this. Nutritional yeast has its place in many plant-based dishes. Pesto is not one of them.
  • Trader Joe’s extra virgin olive oil is my go-to.

** NOTE: Most of the recipes I’m sharing here call for dairy parmesan. PLEASE replace it with Follow Your Heart or another plant-based parmesan, at least once. Then Open Your Heart by reading this beautiful essay from Best American Food Writing 2021.

Traditional Basil Pesto is easily turned into Winning Plant-Based Pesto by substituting Follow Your Heart for dairy parmesan. Neither you nor your guests will have any idea. Money-back guarantee. This is my go-to, eat-at-least-once-a-week (sometimes twice in the summer) pesto.

Garlic Scape Pesto is a favorite among vegetable gardeners. Scapes (the green, curly tops of the plant) are ready to eat way before the garlic — or just about anything else in the garden (especially if you live in the Northeast). The first time I made this it was bitter, so I swore it off. Then I watched this video, and learned I was using the wrong part of the scape. Give it a try. It’s yummy. (I used pine nuts instead of walnuts, which I’m allergic to).

NYT Garlic Scape Pesto uses sunflower seeds. The comments, as usual, are a great read. This one is worth a try if you subscribe. (Otherwise, as usual, you’ll hit a paywall).

Mint Basil Pesto is dreamy. The summer that mint took over my garden we ate a lot of this.

Parsley, Basil, Green Bean Pesto mixes a bit of basil with a lot of parsley. More evidence (see fennel fronds and mint, above) that just about any herb you have on hand will make a punchy, piquant pesto.

Pesto Pasta with Green Beans and Potatoes is the perfect dish to serve for a Cabernet-centric dinner party. (It pairs well with heavy reds, and as an added bonus, sops up the alcohol). It’s also an excellent way to carb up if you’re running a marathon the next day… in which case, you may want to hold back on the Cabernet.