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Quick and Easy Raw Kale Pesto Recipe

Lena is a foodie and home cook from the SF Bay Area with a passion for Spanish flavors and traditional cooking with a modern touch.

My raw kale pesto sauce

My raw kale pesto sauce

What Is Pesto?

Traditional basil pesto originates from Genoa in Italy. In fact, the word "pesto" comes from the past participle of the Genoese word pestâ ("to pound" or "to crush"), because of the way it is prepared. Just like a Spanish romesco recipe, garlic and nuts are combined with olive oil, salt, and other ingredients to make a slightly chunky sauce that can be eaten on anything from pita chips to pasta!

Why Make Kale Pesto?

Kale is full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making it something of a superfood. Since I grow at least two kinds of kale every winter, I am constantly looking for new and different ways to prepare these greens, and I know a lot of people with CSA boxes who have the same dilemma.

This simple sauce is easy to make and tastes great on everything: Serve it as a dip with veggie sticks and chips, eat it with tortilla espanola, put it on grilled fish, spread it on bruschetta, or use it as an all-purpose sauce for pasta, pizza, couscous, quinoa, and more! It also meets a number of different dietary needs if you are having guests over with special dietary requirements. It is completely raw and vegan, making it perfect for parties and potluck dishes.

What If I Don't Like Kale?

You can still try this recipe. Just trim out the stems and blanch your greens before you use them. This will remove much of the bitterness associated with the vegetable, making it more friendly for children or other picky eaters. Your sauce will no longer technically be "raw," which makes it less suitable for some diets, but if you're not on a strict raw food regimen and that's the way you prefer it, who cares?

Blanching will also help preserve the bright green color of the pesto if you are not planning on using it up the first day. Personally, I enjoy the flavor of fresh greens as they are, so I do not usually bother blanching, and as someone with a bit of a militant streak in terms of food waste, I never remove the stems, either. It's completely up to you!

Preparation Time

Prep timeReady inYields

15 min

15 min

2 to 3 cups


  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1 large bunch kale, any kind (blanched, if you aren't a die-hard kale fan)
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 lemons, zest and juice
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground red pepper, hot paprika or cayenne
  • 3 to 4 tbsp roughly chopped fresh herbs, like mint or parsley (optional)
  • salt and pepper, to taste
Kale pesto ingredients

Kale pesto ingredients


  1. Put the sunflower seeds in a small pan over medium heat and toast just until golden brown, stirring often. Set aside to cool.
  2. Wash, pat dry, and roughly chop your kale, including stems. Add to the food processor in batches and pulse until you have room to add more. Repeat until all the kale is at least partially broken down.
  3. Peel the garlic and give it a quick mince. Throw this in the food processor, too, and pulse to combine.
  4. Zest both of the lemons into the mixture, then cut them in half and squeeze in the juice (being careful to avoid getting any seeds into the pesto).
  5. Add the olive oil, hot paprika or cayenne, and fresh herbs (if using), and blend the whole mixture until it the garlic is very fine and everything is well combined.
  6. Last, put in your cooled sunflower seeds. Use the "pulse" function until they reach the consistency you like. (I prefer to have some recognizable chunks of seed for texture and presentation.)
  7. Season with salt and adjust the spice level to your taste. If you want a thinner consistency, use more olive oil.
  8. Serve immediately or store in an airtight jar in the refrigerator, up to one week. Alternatively, you can freeze this sauce in ice cube trays for easy portioning, as seen in the video below.

Variations for Basic Pesto

Once you master the basic pesto recipe, you can mix and match ingredients for an endless variety of vegan sauces. Try using different fresh herbs:

  • Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Mint
  • Chives
  • Basil
  • Oregano

You can also substitute different greens:

  • Arugula
  • Chard
  • Mustard greens
  • Beet greens
  • Collard greens
  • Carrot tops
  • Spinach

Finally, instead of sunflower seeds, you can try any number of other seeds or nuts:

  • Pine nuts
  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Pecans
  • Pistachios
  • Pumpkin seeds

If you're not worried about keeping the recipe vegan, you can also add hard cheese like Pecorino Romano or Parmesan.

Fresh pasta with chicken, broccolini, and kale pesto sauce

Fresh pasta with chicken, broccolini, and kale pesto sauce

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