Eat Well Jul. 13. 2020

How to Make Pesto Out of Different Greens

Jul. 13. 2020
McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

Did you know you can make pesto with other greens instead of just basil?

Pesto is fresh and green and has the right balance of savory and earthy flavors. From salads, sandwiches, and pasta to chicken and seafood, pesto can basically transform any dish into a nutrient-dense and savory meal.

Pesto originated in Genoa Italy and is traditionally made with pine nuts, Parmesan cheese or hard cheese like Pecorino, basil, garlic, and olive oil.

The exciting thing about pesto recipes is the versatility you can apply with the greens — so instead of using fresh basil, you can get creative with any green or herb you have an excess of such as collard, kale, arugula, and mustard greens. This is such a great idea to use for food preservation after an abundant gardening season, to utilize all the greens you received in a local CSA, or if you stocked up at the market or grocery store on different greens.

Adding leafy greens, like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and collard greens, to your pesto is an excellent way to boost the nutrition of your meal and use up all those seasonal greens no matter what your region.

How To Make Pesto Out Of Different Greens

1. How To Make Pesto With Spinach

The super green is a nutrition workhorse, packing phytonutrients, such as beta-carotene and lutein, and supplying a slew of antioxidants and vitamins.

In this Spinach Basil Pesto recipe, I blend fresh basil with spinach, garlic, hemp seeds, walnuts, olive oil, nutritional yeast, and lemon juice. Nutritional yeast is a great substitute for Parmesan because it has a cheesy flavor and gives a boost of B vitamins. Instead of pine nuts, hemp seeds and walnuts deliver a big dose of heart-loving omega-3 fatty acids.

2. How To Make Pesto With Kale

From lacinato to curly to red Russian, kale is king in our nutrition books for many reasons. This wonderfully dense green is rich in fiber, iron, vitamin A and C, calcium, cancer-preventing glucosinolates. Because kale has a very dense texture, I suggest massaging it with olive oil before you combine it with the other pesto ingredients.

Mix up your kale pesto recipe by blending in cashews! They add a creaminess and almost decadent flavor to your sauce. It also makes your pesto incredibly filling, so you don’t have to worry about going overboard. You can add a dash of red pepper flakes to your pesto sauce to give it a kick of capsaicin, a compound in peppers that has been shown to relieve pain and boost your metabolism.

3. How To Make Pesto With Chard

When we think of leafy greens, spinach and kale immediately come to mind, but we often forget about Swiss chard. This green powerhouse is an excellent source of magnesium, iron, potassium, and calcium, and just a cup of it nearly has three times the recommended daily allowance of vitamin K.

Studies have also suggested that the veggie’s antioxidant properties may help prevent cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

In a pesto, I think the bitterness of Swiss chard pairs best with almonds because they have a subtly sweet and nutty flavor. You can also add lemon zest in addition to lemon juice to enhance the aroma of the pesto.

4. How To Make Pesto With Collard

Collard greens belong to the cruciferous family of vegetables, along with kale, cauliflower, and radishes. Cruciferous vegetables rich in sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates, which have been shown to help prevent and fight cancer.

Collard greens are also a power source of glutathione — an antioxidant that’s been getting a lot of buzz lately because of its growing role in cancer research and immune function. You might be most familiar with Southern-style collard greens, but this leafy green has so much more potential for a wonderful pesto sauce!

Consider preparing a collard green pesto with pecans, olives, and a touch of balsamic vinegar; the complexity of tastes and textures blend really well with the greens’ earthy and grassy flavor.

5. How To Make Pesto With Arugula

Arugula‘s naturally peppery taste and soft leaves make it a wonderful addition to any pesto sauce. The popular green supplies vitamins A and K and folate, as well as beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Arugula also belongs to the cruciferous family of vegetables, so it has cancer-fighting properties. Because of its spicy flavor, you can opt to use arugula in place of basil in your pesto.

Just like any green pesto, blend arugula with walnuts, garlic, and nutritional yeast to impart a cheesy flavor, if you’re dairy-free. And if you dare to turn up the heat, adding a dash of cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes will make sure the sauce is lit.

How To Preserve Pesto For Later

I’ve been learning so much about food preservation techniques as we’re growing most of our own food now on our land so I want to make sure that all the love, care, and tending to the plants don’t go to waste one bit!

Pesto is such a great way to utilize heartier greens and basil of course, by making large batches, freezing into baggies or cubes, and reheating them year-round for delicious pastas, Foundational Five Nourish Meals, dressings, condiments, and more.

What you’ll need to preserve pesto for later:

  1. Your pesto recipe! Click here for my favorite go-to plant-based pesto recipe. You can replace the basil in this recipe for any type of green and be sure to taste test and adjust the seasonings and amount of olive oil as you go since greens have unique properties — some may contain more water than others.
  2. Ice cube tray: there are many ways you can store the pesto in the freezer but I really enjoy using an ice cube tray because each container is about 2 tablespoons so it’s an easy way to portion out a few servings at a time to reheat, compared to storing all of your pesto in one large batch.
    1. Here are a few ice cube trays that work well: honeycomb-style ice cube tray and large cube tray (great for larger portions for families)

Let’s Hear It!

How do you like to incorporate dark, leafy greens into your pesto? What is our favorite green to cook with and why? Share your recipe ideas with the NS community below and be sure to post your dishes on Instagram with #nutritionstripped.

The Recipe

Serves Makes about 1 quart of pesto



1 large bunch kale, stems removed

1/4 cup nuts, such as pistachios, pine nuts, or walnuts

2 tablespoons hemp seeds

juice from 1/2 a lemon

1 clove garlic

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast

salt and pepper to taste


Step 1

In a large saucepan, bring water to a boil. Carefully add kale leaves allow to cook slightly until leaves turn a vibrant green color. About 30 seconds.

Remove greens and place on a baking sheet or large plate to cool.

Step 2

In a highspeed blender, add nuts, nutritional yeast, and hemp seeds and pulse until well combined. Add olive oil, kale leaves, lemon juice, and garlic. Running the blender at medium speed, slowing pour in water until desired consistency is achieved. Salt and pepper to taste.


Have Leftovers? Here’s What To Do With Them:

As always, store in an airtight glass container that we recommend from the NS Shop for up to 4 days in the refrigerator.

Can’t wait to see you try it!

Did you know that you can submit your own photo of whatever recipe you make from NS? Scroll down to the bottom right and you’ll see a section for you to show off your creations from home!

Can’t wait to see how you make these and share your meal with me! Tag us on Instagram @nutritionstripped #nutritionstripped

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