This one started with a fridge cleanout. I opened one of the crisper drawers and unearthed most of a bunch of parsley, about a week old (leftover from making stuffed tomatoes, I think). The leaves were slowly darkening and turning brittle, and it was clear they were at their use-or-lose point. Of course, when life hands you a bunch of herbs, the natural thing to do is make pesto; but, as the rest of the fridge-cleaning revealed, we had neither nuts nor cheese around. What we did have was a tub of white miso, which I’d bought for some other cooking project that ultimately flopped. So I decided to experiment a little, and see what a vegan, nut-free pesto might be like.
As it turned out, miso makes a surprisingly appealing pesto. I was concerned about texture, but the miso easily replaced both the waxy bulk of the nuts and the salty stickiness of the cheese. It looked and felt just like an ordinary pesto, lightly bound and made moist with olive oil. I used a knife, as per usual, and the whole thing came together quickly and without fuss. In fact, I think it was faster to make than my usual pesto; the knife glided through the miso paste, instead of having to bite chunks of nuts and gather flecks of cheese with each stroke.
I will say, though, that if you came to this expecting an exact replica of Italian pesto, you’d be disappointed. This is different from the nut-and-cheese version, and majorly flavorful in its own right. It’s lighter and more relaxed than the traditional stuff, and the mass that binds the herbs and garlic together is soft instead of slick. The miso is subtle but definitely present; instead of the earth tones of nuts, there’s a grassy undercurrent of soy. The saltiness is deeper and blunter than it would be from cheese. This version feels even more summery than regular pesto, if that’s possible; the greenness of the parsley is really front and center.
Because of the unmistakable miso flavor, I don’t think I’d use this on pasta. Rice, perhaps, or some other grain; maybe as a spread on bread; perhaps as a coating for roasted potatoes. I could see it spread and rolled in a piece of meat, or basted on chicken, or stirred into vegetable soup, or folded into scrambled eggs. But, in my mind, this pesto is really tailor-made for seafood, and specifically fish. I thinned out my batch of pesto with some lemon juice and a splash of hot water, and used it as a sauce on simply seared white fish: incredible. So light, so sophisticated, so much flavor in so few bites.
Parsley Miso Pesto (makes about 3/4 cup)
2 heaping cups chopped fresh parsley (about 3/4 of a bunch)
2 large or 4 small garlic cloves, chopped or thinly sliced
4 tsp white miso paste, or as needed
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, or enough to moisten and bind the pesto
Knife method: Pile about 1/3 of the parsley and garlic in the center of a large cutting board, and use a large sharp chef’s knife or vegetable cleaver to chop them very fine. Add another 1/3 of the parsley and garlic, and chop again until very fine. Add the final 1/3 of the parsley and garlic, and chop again until very fine. Add miso paste, 1 tsp at a time, chopping each addition into the mixture until it’s incorporated. Towards the end, you may find it easier to mash the miso into the herbs with the flat of your knife, rather than chopping. The pesto is ready when you can press it into a lump and have it more or less stick to itself. Transfer the pesto-lump to a small bowl and pour over olive oil to cover the top.
Food processor method: In a food processor, combine parsley, garlic, and miso paste. Pulse until the mixture is finely chopped and holds together when pressed. (If you have a small processor, doing this in batches is fine.) Transfer to a small bowl, press into a mound, and pour over olive oil to cover the top.
The unstirred pesto can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for 2-3 days. To freeze the pesto, transfer the solids to an airtight container and add enough olive oil to cover the surface; it’ll keep in the freezer for up to 2 months. Thaw frozen pesto overnight in the refrigerator.
Just before serving, stir to combine the olive oil and solids.