Vegan Pesto Orzo Salad

Orzo is tossed in a fresh and aromatic easy homemade basil pesto, and paired with juicy cherry tomatoes, salty olives and punchy arugula to make this vegan pesto orzo salad. It’s totally delicious, completely plant based, and ready in less than 15 minutes!

Serving bowl with pesto orzo salad and a small bowl with pasta salad and lemon slices behind

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Pesto orzo salad- the best use for fresh basil

I’ve planted plenty of fresh herbs in my garden this year, and they’re already going mad. My basil has gone particularly enormous, which can only really mean one thing- pesto!

I love the fresh taste of pesto, but more often than not it contains parmesan or romano cheese. I’m not a fan of forking out twice the amount of money for the same product sans cheese, so making homemade vegan pesto has become my go-to. 

For this vegan pesto pasta, I’ve stirred my easy pesto through orzo pasta, along with some dairy free yoghurt for creaminess, and added in some chopped cherry tomatoes, sliced olives, and fresh arugula.

This is somewhat akin to prepared basil pesto pasta salads that you can buy refrigerated at the store- but 100x better. It’s rich and colourful, yet simple and healthy, with completely fresh ingredients. The flavour of the fresh basil is like nothing else.

Why I love pesto orzo salad

This is one of my favourite summer pasta recipes. I love pasta, but in summer I especially love cold pasta salad. It’s filling and refreshing, and requires very little effort.

  • It’s quick and easy- The only cooking required for this vegan orzo salad is the pasta. Other than that, there’s just a little bit of chopping, and whizzing up the pesto in a blender. Even with making your own pesto, it still comes together in 15 minutes.
  • It can be made at the last minute or in advance, making it a great option for both weeknight dinners or meal prep lunch. Pesto orzo salad will keep well in the fridge so you can prepare it for lunches all week long. It’s also a great addition to a summer picnic, and will please everyone at a party.
  • It’s also really easily adaptable depending on what you have in your fridge and pantry. I’ve given some suggestions down below for how you could adapt this vegan pesto pasta, using different pasta shapes, herbs, vegetables or beans.
Ingredients for pesto orzo salad- orzo, tomatoes, olives, sun dried tomatoes, arugula, pesto, yoghurt

What are the ingredients?

  • Orzo– also known as ‘risoni’, orzo is a small rice-shaped pasta. Traditionally it’s used in soups and broths, but it’s great for pesto orzo salad too.
  • Pesto– all you’ll need is fresh basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, mixed seeds, garlic, lemon and salt to make a delicious pesto sauce for this dish.
  • Yoghurt– this is added to make the orzo pesto pasta salad totally creamy and luxurious! You can use any dairy-free variety (soya, coconut, oat, cashew etc.).
  • Tomatoes– I’ve opted for fresh and juicy cherry tomatoes in this summer orzo salad. Make sure they’re nice and ripe and flavoursome.
Chopped tomatoes, olives and sun dried tomatoes on a chopping board
  • Sun dried tomatoes– these compliment the fresh tomatoes, and add an extra depth of flavour. You can buy them fresh, or use the jarred type.
  • Olives– I prefer the taste of black olives, but kalamata olives would also work a treat. I wouldn’t recommend using green olives in this recipe.
  • Rocket– adds a lovely punchy flavour. You could substitute this for spinach, but it will result in a very different outcome.

How to make vegan orzo salad

The first thing to do is put the orzo on to cook. Fill a saucepan with water and a big pinch of salt, then bring to a simmer. Add the pasta and cook for 8-10 minutes until it’s just al dente.

Cooking pasta in saucepan

Meanwhile, make the vegan pesto. You can use a full sized blender, bullet blender, or stick blender for this. I really like to use the personal blender attachment from my Ninja 3-in-1, as it just makes less washing up than the full blender attachment.

Toasting the seeds before blending them into the pesto really amps up the flavour. I would recommend toasting them in a dry pan over medium heat for 3-4 minutes, until they start to smell really good and crackle lightly.

Add the basil, olive oil, toasted seeds, garlic, lemon and salt to the blender, then blend on high until it’s mostly smooth. I like to leave a few little bits of crunchy seeds as I love the texture they add, but you can blend until completely smooth if you would rather.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it through a colander and rinse with cold running water. This step is important as it cools down the pasta and stops it from sticking together. 

Add it to a mixing bowl with the pesto, yoghurt, tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes and olives. Mix everything together really well, then add in the arugula and stir it through. You can top the creamy pesto orzo salad with some toasted seeds for a little extra crunch and flavour.

How to serve

I like to prep this pesto orzo salad for lunches for the week, as it keeps well and tastes better every day. If I’m doing this, I’ll serve it as it is, as it’s just the right amount of food.

You can also serve this vegan pesto pasta at dinner. It’s nice and filling so I don’t generally find I need to serve anything with it. Saying that, you could definitely serve it alongside a nice summer salad, or some Italian bread such as focaccia or ciabatta. 

You can top it with some crumbled vegan feta or finely shaved vegan parmesan if you enjoy vegan cheeses. 

A summer orzo salad also goes brilliantly at BBQs, picnics or parties, where it can work as a side dish or buffet option. Serve it alongside some grilled tofu, dips and breads, antipasti, and different salads.

three bowls of pesto orzo salad with some sliced lemons and lemon water

Ingredient substitutes

Like a lot of my recipes, the ingredients in this can be swapped out for whatever you might have to hand. There’s really no rules when it comes to this recipe!

  • Try making pesto from different herbs– you can do cilantro (coriander) and mint, parsley, dill and lemon balm- the world is your (vegan) oyster! You can even throw in some arugula (rocket) or spinach to the pesto.
  • For a hit of protein, why not add in some beans? Canned beans are quick and easy, and you could use butter beans, navy beans, chickpeas or cannellini beans. 
  • Tofu is a great addition to this pesto orzo salad. You can cube it and lightly fry it until golden before adding to the pesto pasta, or you can simply crumble it and stir through the dish.
  • You can add different raw veggies to this vegan orzo pasta salad depending on your taste. I love chopped zucchini, cucumber, bell pepper, baby artichokes or finely chopped cauliflower.
  • If you want to take it one step further, try adding some roasted vegetables to the mix. You can roast the cherry tomatoes, or try diced eggplant, squash, onion, or broccoli.
  • I’ve topped this pesto orzo pasta salad with mixed toasted seeds, but you can just use your favourite seeds if you would like. Alternatively, you can use toasted pine nuts, or chopped pecans, walnuts or cashews.

Can I use a different type of pasta? 

Yes, you can definitely use a different type of pasta. Small pasta shapes such as mini conchiglie (shells), macaroni or small orecchiette (ears) work well in vegan pesto pasta, but you could also use larger shapes such as penne, fusilli or farfalle (bows). 

If you go for a shape which is larger than orzo, it’s very important that you measure it by weight. You will get much less fusilli in a cup than you would orzo!

You can even make this creamy pesto orzo salad gluten free by using your favourite gluten free pasta. There are a lot of different options for gluten free pasta on the market right now, including those made from rice, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas, fava beans, or even black beans.

Serving bowl of pesto orzo salad with a served up portion on the side

Can I buy vegan pesto?

I’ve included instructions for a basil pesto in this recipe, as I think that this really is the tastiest way to enjoy pesto. However, I appreciate that not everyone has the time/inclination/equipment to make homemade pesto at home. You can swap out the pesto here for 180g/ ¾ cup of shop bought pesto.

If you go down this route, you need to either check for a vegan marked pesto, or look for a vegetarian pesto that doesn’t contain milk or egg. These will normally be in the parmesan or romano cheese which is added to the pesto, and will generally be marked in bold or capital letters on the ingredients.

Vegan pesto will either not contain these ingredients at all, or substitute them with ingredients such as tofu or cashew nuts. My favourite store bought pesto is this one, as I find it just has a really great basil-y flavour!

FAQs

Can I serve it warm?

This pesto orzo salad was intended as a pasta salad to be eaten cold, however if you love it so much that you want to eat it as a warming dish, then you can. Just pop it in a saucepan over a low-medium heat, and stir it until it’s warm through. You can add a splash of water if it looks like it’s drying up.

Can I prepare pesto orzo salad in advance?

This recipe is perfect for meal prep, so it can be prepared plenty in advance. It will keep for up to 4 days in an airtight container in the fridge, getting tastier every day! Portion it up into 4 individual containers and it’s ready to grab and go. As this is a cold pesto pasta salad, it’s ready to eat without any need for reheating.

Can I freeze the vegan pesto?

The pesto itself will keep for even longer sealed in the fridge, so you can enjoy it for up to a week. You can freeze the pesto for up to 6 months, in either a sealed container or an ice cube tray (just make sure you transfer the cubes to a sealed bag or container once frozen). 
Defrost in the fridge overnight, or at room temperature for a few hours. If you’re in a rush, you can also defrost the pesto at a low power in the microwave until it’s at room temperature.

Close up photo of pesto orzo salad with lemon slices in a bowl

More lunch time inspiration

  • This Mexican buddha bowl is packed with smokey, fresh and spicy flavours. It’s gluten free, super nutritious, and takes just 30 minutes to make.
  • If you’re a pasta salad lover, this Mediterranean pasta salad will hit just the spot! It’s healthy and filled with summer flavours, as well as chickpeas for a hit of protein!
  • This teriyaki tofu and cauliflower uses a healthier homemade teriyaki sauce, and is baked in the oven for a tasty lunch.
  • Or why not try this tofu katsu salad? All the flavours of a katsu curry in the form of a salad!

Pin it!

Pin image for pesto orzo salad
Serving bowl with pesto orzo salad and a small bowl with pasta salad and lemon slices behind

Vegan Pesto Orzo Salad

Chloe from Forkful of Plants
Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 10 mins
Total Time 15 mins
Course Main Course, Pasta, Salad
Cuisine Mediterranean
Servings 4
Orzo is tossed in a fresh and aromatic easy homemade basil pesto, and paired with juicy cherry tomatoes, salty olives and punchy arugula to make this vegan pesto orzo salad. It’s totally delicious, completely plant based, and ready in less than 15 minutes!

Ingredients
  

  • 250 g dried orzo 1¼ cups

For the homemade pesto

  • 80 g mixed seeds* ½ cup
  • 45 g basil ~1 cup, lightly packed
  • 60 ml extra virgin olive oil ¼ cup
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 lemon, squeezed
  • ¼ tsp salt

For the pasta salad

  • 1 batch homemade pesto or 180g/¾ cup store-bought
  • 100 g dairy free yoghurt heaping ⅓ cup
  • 250 g cherry tomatoes, halved around 20
  • 5 sun dried tomatoes, sliced
  • 50 g black olives, halved ⅓ cup
  • 30 g arugula (rocket) 1½ loosely packed cups

Instructions
 

  • Firstly, put the orzo on to cook. Fill a saucepan with water and a big pinch of salt, then bring to a simmer. Add the pasta and cook for 8-10 minutes until it’s just al dente.
  • Meanwhile, make the vegan pesto. Toast the seeds over a medium heat for 3-4 minutes in a dry pan. They will start to smell toasty and lightly crackle when ready.
  • Add the basil, olive oil, toasted seeds, garlic, lemon juice and salt to a blender**, then blend on high until it’s mostly smooth.
  • When the pasta is cooked, drain it through a colander and rinse with cold running water.
  • Add the orzo to a mixing bowl with the pesto, yoghurt, tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes, olives and rocket. Mix everything together really well.
  • To serve, you can top the salad with some toasted seeds for a little extra crunch and flavour.

Notes

*You can use a mix of seeds or just your favourite seed. Pumpkin and sunflower seeds work best in this pesto, and can be complimented with linseeds or sesame seeds. You can throw in some pine nuts if you don’t need to keep it nut free.
**You can use a full sized blender, bullet blender, or stick blender for this. I really like to use the personal blender attachment from my Ninja 3-in-1, as it just makes less washing up than the full blender attachment.

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