One of the best things about summer (aside from finally feeling the warm sunshine on my face #minnesota) is the harvest of fresh basil growing in the garden. I’m no stranger to topping most things with sauces, or to using pesto and basil on just about everything from peach and burrata flatbreads to tossing it in a creamy salmon pasta, using it in sun-dried tomato dip, and even mixing it into quiches.
What about citrus pesto, though? This recipe has a very sentimental aspect to it, that I’ll quickly share for posterity’s sake. Several summers ago, my mom and I traveled to France. We spent time in Paris, Avignon, and ended our trip in Nice. In each city we indulged in a variety of foods, soaking up each and every bite we could.
We ate at the most incredible pizza place in Nice. This is where our love for citrus pesto came to be. My mom ordered a pizza (all came heart-shaped, how cute!) with this pesto and our minds were blown.
I can’t believe it’s taken me almost two years after that first bite of pizza to develop our own version of lemon basil pesto. But now it’s here, and we’re going to use it so many ways this summer! From flatbreads to crostini to grilling…get ready for so many ways to use this pesto!
What You’ll Need to Make Citrus Pesto
Three cheers for simple, fresh ingredients that turn into a delicious, flavorful, and bright pesto! Here’s what you’ll need to make this easy recipe (and a few substitutions, too!).
- Basil – sweet, savory, with a hint of mint and pepper, this fresh herb is a must for pesto! To make this pesto even more punchy, try using lemon basil.
- Lemon Zest + Juice – the citrus in this pesto is from lemons, lots of lemons, specifically lemon zest. There’s so much flavor that comes from the zest of lemons. Lemon juice is also in the pesto for more brightness.
- Almonds – while pine nuts are typically used in pesto, we’re opting for almonds here. They’re more regularly kept on hand and are much cheaper than pine nuts. You can also substitute walnuts.
- Garlic – no explanation needed? Use as much as you want, friend.
- Parsley – I love adding a little parsley to this recipe; it adds a neutral, clean, fresh earthiness. You could omit if you don’t have any on hand, as we’re just adding a couple of tablespoons.
- Olive Oil – smooths out the pesto creating a luxurious pesto. Because it’s raw, I recommend using high-quality extra virgin olive oil for the best flavor.
- Salt (and pepper) – add to taste!
How to Make Lemon Basil Pesto
There’s nothing better than an easy 5-minute recipe that you can store in your fridge and use on basically anything to create a quick weeknight dinner that’s full of flavor. Especially in the summer when the focus is on getting back into the sunshine, keeping the oven off, and pouring another glass of rose.
Zesting the Lemons
There are several ways to zest lemons, and generally I will pull out my microplane and zest the lemon. It’s easy to do, and results in perfectly small lemon zest pieces.
That being said, because this recipe uses quite a bit of lemon zest (we’re going for 3 large lemons!), I find that using a vegetable peeler to peel the zest works best.
There’s really no wrong way to get the zest off when comparing the Microplane or peeler method, just be careful to not get much of the white pith, as it is bitter.
I hold the lemon in one hand, securing the bottom with my thumb, then use the vegetable peeler to gently peel down, being careful to not press too hard (again, because we don’t want too much of the pith). You will need some pressure to pull it through, however.
Do so carefully and make sure your fingers are not in the way – we don’t want any accidents! Once your lemons are zested, you can place the peels (or fine zest) in the food processor. There’s no need to chop the peels of zest as we’re going to let the blades to the work (and that means less work for you!).
In the Food Processor
After you’ve added the zest to the food processor bowl, add the almonds, garlic, and lemon juice. Because these are the more hearty ingredients, we want to chop them into a coarse crumb before continuing. Adding the lemon juice here helps to move things along.
Now that we have a coarse mixture, it’s time to add the herbs! They’re more delicate, so adding them at the end means they won’t end up obliterated. Once they’re in the bowl, slowly drizzle in the olive oil while the food processor is running. This helps incorporate the oil throughout and bring the pesto together.
If you prefer a saucier pesto, continue adding olive oil until your desired consistency is reached. Don’t forget to taste test, this is always one of the most important steps. Check the salt levels and adjust as you need to for your preferences, and add in a pinch of pepper as desired. That’s the beautiful thing about cooking: you can make it fit your needs exactly!
How to Use Citrus Pesto
Ok, you’ve made citrus pesto, and now what?
Now it’s time to get creative and use it as you would pesto or in any dish you think would benefit from a bright burst of lemon. I highly recommend it on a flatbread pizza, as I first enjoyed it (recipe coming soon!). I also have a citrus pesto crostini recipe coming next week (I KNOW THE TORTURE OF WAITING) that is dang fantastic.
So until those come out, might I recommend serving it with crostini or socca and goat cheese or mozzarella. Toss it with pasta, or substitute it in this Salmon Pesto Pasta recipe. Grill salmon or shrimp skewers and veggies and serve it as a sauce to top them both with.
Frequently Asked Questions
I haven’t tried it myself, but I’ve heard great results using sunflower seeds in pesto in place of nuts.
Yes, this pesto recipe doesn’t have any cheese in it and is therefore vegan and dairy-free.
You sure can! Add parmesan cheese to the food processor when blending the zest. Remember parmesan cheese is salty, so you may not need to add as much fine sea salt to the finished pesto if you do so.
Get the Recipe Lemon Basil Citrus Pesto
- 3 large lemons, zested, ½ cup packed zest peels
- 1/3 cup raw almonds
- 2-3 garlic cloves
- 5-6 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice, use the lemons you zested
- 1/3 cup fresh basil, tightly packed
- 2 Tablespoon fresh parsley
- 4 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, more, as desired
- 1/4 tsp fine sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper, optional, to taste
- Peel the lemon zest using a vegetable peeler, being careful to not get too much of the white pith as it is bitter. then place it in a food processor and pulse until a coarse crumb forms. Then, add the almonds, garlic cloves, and lemon juice. Pulse until a coarse mixture forms, then add the basil and parsley. Slowly drizzle the olive oil in as the food processor is running, until fully combined. Stir in the salt and pepper to taste.
- In a food processor, place the lemon zest, almonds, garlic cloves, and lemon juice. Pulse until a coarse mixture forms.
- Add the basil and parsley. Slowly drizzle the olive oil in the bowl of the food processor as it is running, until fully combined and semi-smooth. You can adjust the texture by adding more olive oil, if you like it saucier, or continuing to pulse to make it completely smooth. Stir in the salt and pepper to taste.
- Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.
By the Way…
This recipe is part of our collection of savory homemade sauce recipes. Check it out!