Mortar and pestle pumpkin seed pesto

By Claudia Zapata | 2015-06-03 00:40:34 | 3 Comments

tomatoes e pesto

My love affair for pesto and wine both began during my the fall semester of my junior year in college, while living in a beautiful villa owned by Georgetown University outside of Florence. I was a very blessed 19 year-old, studying the Italian Renaissance along with fifteen other students. Classes were often held throughout historical sites in the city, but pranzo (lunch) and cena (dinner) were always back at the villa, cooked by one of the best chefs in town, Carla.

Cena was light, but pranzo was a feast. The first course, called primo, was a delicious risotto or pasta, and always my favorite. Secondo was a meat, poultry or fish, while contorno typically a vegetable, was the side dish. And finally, the insalata and dolce followed. Throughout, Italian table wine was always flowing. Yes, at lunch. For college students.

God, I love Italy.

It was, without a doubt, one of the best times of my life, and while I studied Italian literature, painting, sculpture, and architecture, the experience gave me a lasting and profound appreciation for meals long on time and conversation, and real food – long before the real food movement in the United States.  Thankfully, Italy was also where I first took up long distance running, or my cheeks in the pic below might be even bigger.

Villa le Balze

Back to the pesto, which Carla made with olive oil pressed from the olives grown on the property’s olive orchard and fresh basil from the garden. Mixed with homemade pasta, it was so packed with flavor, we soaked up any pesto on the bottom of our plates with the a piece of bread from the loaves delivered daily at the villa’s doorstep.

Carla didn’t use a food processor. Pesto alla Genovese originated in Genoa, and the word pesto comes from the Italian pestare which means to pound or crush. Italians use a marble mortar and wooden pestle to make their pesto, and using Carla as inspiration, I’ve attempted the same thing here.

Making pesto in a mortar and pestle is no vacation, and this post could easily be filed under workouts.  Expect to use a little elbow grease but know you’ll soon be sitting down to the freshest basil, nut and cheese sauce you’ve ever had.

My favorite pesto is the classic version with pine nuts like Carla prepared, so while while some versions are prepped with cilantro or parsley or even kale, I stuck to the basil because it is my absolutely favorite herb.  And as much as I love pine nuts, I wanted to go outside the box and can crush a new nut in my pesto. I thought about trying to replicate San Antonio’s Chef Jason Dady’s pistachio pesto served at our favorite restaurant in San Antonio, Tre Enoteca, but no one does it better than Chef Dady (seriously, it’s the best pesto in town), and we dine there often enough for me to enjoy it regularly.

Walnuts were my next guess until I spotted pumpkin seeds. These nutritional nuggets one of Sean’s favorite nuts, and a wonderful source of monounsaturated fatty acids, fiber and protein as well as vitamin E, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, manganese and copper. We love them plain or roasted as a snack so why not try them in a pesto?

Pumpkin seeds closeup

Another variation: instead of olive oil, I used avocado oil, my go-to for everything from salads to stir-frys and roasted vegetables. Avocare’s avocado oil in either the plain or basil variety pairs perfectly here (disclosure: Avocare is a sponsor of; see more about our the benefits of avocado oil and our partnership here). And, I am excited to be partnering with them once again to give away gift boxes of their avocado oils to three lucky winners, each receiving a four-pack of oils in plain, basil, chipotle and garlic flavors. Enter below for your chance to win!

After mixing garlic, salt, pumpkin seeds, basil, Parmagiano-Reggiano and Avocare’s avocado oil in a mortar and pestle, my right arm was exhausted, but the pesto was delizioso! Hope you will agree.

Pumpkin pesto ingredients


Buon Appetito!

Mortar and pestle roasted pumpkin seed pesto
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 1 cup
Prep time:
Total time:
  • 1 garlic clove
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ⅔ cups toasted pumpkin seeds
  • 2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
  • ¼ cup grated Parmagiano-Reggiano
  • ½ cup Avocare avocado oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Place the garlic clove and the salt in the mortar and crush until they form a paste.
  2. Add the toasted pumpkin seeds and continue working until the seeds are completely ground.
  3. Add the basil leaves and crush, using the sides of the bowl to break up the leaves completely.
  4. Repat with the cheese until mix is well blended and mostly uniform in texture.
  5. Put the pesto mix in a bowl and slowly drizzle in the avocado oil until desired consistency is achieved.
  6. Salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Serve at room temperature in salads, or over pasta, fish, chicken, meat or grilled vegetables. Refrigerate up to a week or freeze (you can freeze in ice cube trays to thaw and use as needed.


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3 responses to “Mortar and pestle pumpkin seed pesto”

  1. Anna says:

    This sounds delicious. I will be trying it on fish, except I don’t have a morta and pestle so I’ll be using my Vitamix.

  2. Cynthia says:

    looks gantastic. I’m thinking you could give Jason a run for his (pesto) money.

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