This delicious cilantro pesto can be used for a number of cuisines from Thai to Mexican. Made with loads of fresh cilantro, lime zest and juice, cashews, and a spicy serrano pepper, this pesto packs lots of flavor.
It’s a beautiful fusion of Italian and Mexican.
How to make cilantro pesto
The ingredients for this pesto were chosen not only for their unique flavor profiles, but because they marry so well together. In addition, the cashews add a creamy, rich component that compliments the tangy lime and spicy serrano chile.
The easiest way to make cilantro pesto is by using a food processor or blender, but you can also make it by hand using a mortar and pestle. In fact, that’s how pesto was made before the invention of small kitchen appliances. A food processor or blender certainly makes cooking easier!
First, chop the cashews, serrano chile, and garlic. Doing this before adding the cilantro leaves and tender stems will prevent any large chunks and yield a creamy, more uniform pesto.
Serrano chiles are a tad spicier than jalapenos. If you prefer, remove the seeds and ribs of the chile for a milder flavor. Whatever you do, though, be sure to wear gloves to protect your hands and fingers (and eyes!) from the natural oils.
Next, add the cilantro leaves and stems. Pulse until everything is finely chopped. Add the lime zest and juice.
If you don’t have a citrus zester or microplane to remove the zest from the limes, you can use a vegetable peeler and then finely chop the zest before adding it to the processor or blender.
Finally, add the oil. Using a neutral flavored oil like avocado oil is preferable here, but a light olive oil will work too. It’s all about the flavors! Sometimes olive oil can pack a punch all on its own. I’ve even used nut oils such as walnut, macadamia, or almond in this recipe.
5 tips when making cilantro pesto
- Use the cilantro stems. You can eat the stems of cilantro. The stems and leaves have a slightly different flavor – the leaves are a little milder tasting. Most leafy herb stems are too touch or strongly flavored, but cilantro stems are tender and easily chop or blend into the pesto. Plus, who wants to spend all that time picking the leaves off the stems?
- Roughly chop garlic, chiles, and nuts first. Chopping the garlic, chiles, and nuts first – either in the food processor or blender, or by hand, prevents large chunks of garlic in the cilantro pesto. You can do this by turning on the empty food processor (or blender) and dropping the garlic in through the feed hole, followed by the chiles and nuts.
- Use fresh squeezed lime juice. Bottled citrus juices have a flat flavor. Whenever possible, use fresh-squeezed lime or lemon juice. Not only does it taste better, but you’ll reap the nutritional benefits of fresh juice too.
- Use the right type of oil. Most oils have some kind of flavor, especially the unrefined or virgin varieties. A grassy, green extra virgin olive oil will have a slightly bitter flavor that could take over the cilantro pesto. I suggest using a lighter flavored or neutral-flavored oil so the other flavors shine through. That being said, you can also use nut oils to add in some extra flavor.
- Add extra flavor boosters. If you have access to fresh kaffir lime leaves, add a few to this pesto – you won’t be sorry! But for those of us who are unable to find fresh kaffir lime leaves, fresh lime zest is a good stand-in. Lots of vibrant lime flavor is contained in that zest!
Pesto serving suggestions
There are so many ways to use cilantro pesto! Try using it as a sandwich spread, as a pizza sauce, drizzled or dolloped over roasted veggies, a breakfast bowl, or a grain bowl. Or use a dip for fresh veggies.Print
Add some tangy, spicy cilantro pesto to soups, top veggies, or use as a dip or spread. Cilantro is a natural detoxifying herb that pairs well with lime and serrano chiles.
- ¼ cup raw cashew pieces or halves
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
- 1 serrano chile, seeds and ribs removed, if desired
- Juice and zest of 2 large limes
- 3 big bunches cilantro, leaves and tender stems, about 5 cups loosely packed
- ½ cup neutral flavored oil, such as safflower or avocado oil
- Sea salt, to taste
- Place cashews, garlic cloves, and serrano chile into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Pulse until finely chopped.
- Add cilantro and lime zest to the food processor. Pulse a few times to combine.
- With motor running, add lime juice and oil through the feed hole. Stop and scrape down sides as needed. Once pesto is the consistency of a slightly chunky paste, stop the food processor and add a good pinch of sea salt. Pulse a few times. Taste and add a little more salt, if needed.
- Transfer to a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Can also be frozen for up to 2 months.
- Not a fan of cilantro? Try swapping it out for a combination of mint and basil instead. Or use parsley.
- Other nuts can be substituted for the cashews. Two or three Brazil nuts or 1/4 cup macadamia nuts will best mimic the flavor and creamy texture of the cashews, but other tree nuts will also work.
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