Parsley and walnuts make a terrific homemade pesto to add to pasta for a simple and light parsley pesto pasta salad that will compliment any meal. Make it ahead of time so the flavors can marinate while it cools.
Parsley pesto pasta salad with walnuts is a great alternative to a traditional basil pesto. The milder flavor of parsley, combined with crunchy walnuts are the perfect coating for a pasta salad. A touch of anchovy adds just enough flavor to catch your attention without being overbearing.
So while you’re waiting for your basil plant to produce enough leaves for pesto, or it’s the middle of winter, let parsley take center stage. (Grab some tips for keeping parsley fresh)
The combination of tangy lemon juice, briny capers, and a hint of red pepper flakes creates an interesting balance of flavors with a gentle kick of heat in this pasta salad. Tossed with spiral-shaped pasta, it’s a refreshing side for any meal.
This pesto pasta salad can be served as a main course, just add some cooked chicken or shrimp, or try a shrimp and orzo salad, but my favorite way is as a cold salad for lunch or dinner. It pairs beautifully with grilled tequila chicken, buttery salmon , or marinated shrimp, but is equally good alongside a simple smash burger or everyday meatloaf.
Garnish it with some extra parmesan cheese, and a sprinkle of chopped walnuts.
This pasta dish is best eaten chilled, like a macaroni salad, it gets better as it cools. This makes it a versatile option for picnics, potlucks, or outdoor gatherings. The bright green colors of the parsley pesto will instantly elevate your table setting and create an inviting and appetizing side dish. However, you can also serve it warm.
We used to have a local restaurant that had been around for over 30 years that served this type of salad with all of their sandwiches and dinner entrees. That just shows how versatile this salad is. While I never asked what was in it while they were open, I think I have recreated the flavors in this recipe. It’s one we make over and over again.
What is the best pasta for pesto?
When it comes to pairing pasta with pesto, texture is key. You want a pasta shape that the pesto can wrap around and coat fully. For this parsley pesto salad, spiral-shaped pasta, such as fusilli or rotini, is the best choice.
The curls and ridges of these pasta shapes create pockets that trap the pesto, ensuring each bite is bursting with flavor. The spiral shape also provides a beautiful visual element to the dish.
You can find most of the more common shapes of pasta and what to serve them with in this article from the Tasting Table.
How do you make pesto?
There are many pesto pasta recipes, but I prefer a parsley pesto for its milder flavor. I use a more traditional basil based pesto in my zucchini pesto appetizer cups and in the creamy sauce of pesto chicken when I have fresh basil available.
It’s a from-scratch recipe that’s easy to make, even for a beginner cook, although you will need a food processor or blender. You just dump everything in and process.
Why You’ll Love Pasta & Pesto
- It’s different from other pesto pasta with a more subtle flavor.
- Due to its mild flavor, you can serve it with anything.
- It gets better as it sits in the fridge.
- Parsley is inexpensive and available at all times of the year.
- No cutting or chopping, the food processor does all the work.
Are walnuts in pesto?
One of the star ingredients in this pesto sauce is walnuts. Walnuts bring a rich nuttiness to the dish and they’re a lot cheaper than pine nuts. Packed with healthy fats and essential nutrients, walnuts not only add depth of flavor but also contribute to the nutritional value of the recipe.
The walnuts pair beautifully with the freshness of the parsley. If walnuts are not your preference or if you have allergies, you can substitute them with other nuts like almonds, pecans, or pine nuts, though keep in mind that the flavor and texture will vary slightly.
Fresh Ingredients For a Pasta Salad
- Fresh Parsley – While parsley is often the garnish or a secondary ingredient to add color and texture, it’s the star of this recipe. Choose fresh, bright green parsley with no wilted leaves. Wash it gently and dry it immediately with paper towels before adding it to the food processor
- Walnuts – Buy fresh, walnuts. If you’ve had some sitting in the cupboard for a while, try a few to make sure they still taste fresh and aren’t dried out. Otherwise, buy a new bag. If you’re not going to use walnuts right away, store them in the freezer to keep them fresh.
- Parmesan Cheese – Parm adds a lot of flavor to this recipe. Buy a fresh block, as it works much better than pre-grated or powdered parmesan. You can substitute it with asiago or pecorino romano if you would like, for a similar result.
- Spiral-shaped Pasta – Try fusilli, rotini, cavatappi, rotelle or radiatori.
- Capers – Buy capers in brine, usually found in a jar in the grocery store.
- Garlic – Fresh garlic will have more flavor than what you get in a jar.
- Anchovy Fillets – The anchovies provide a punch of flavor and distinct saltiness. If you choose not to use them, you can use more capers, or simply omit them altogether.
- Pantry Staples – Olive oil, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper
Pro Tip: Learn the best way to keep your cut parsley fresh while waiting to make the next batch of pasta salad.
Simple Steps for Creating a Parsley Pesto Pasta Salad with Walnuts
Step 1: Cook the pasta.
Use the package directions to cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water. You want al dente pasta. Drain, but reserve ½ cup of the pasta water.
Step 2: Prepare the sauce.
Use a food processor to process the parmesan cheese until it’s finely ground. Remove it and place it in a bowl.
Add the parsley, oil, walnuts, capers, lemon juice, garlic, anchovies, pepper flakes, salt, and pepper to the bowl of the food processor and process until it is smooth. Then, add the parmesan to the mixture and gently mix it all together.
Step 3: Assemble the salad.
Toss the pasta and pesto together, adding as much as ½ cup of the pasta water to reach a consistency you like. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and chill before serving.
Tips for Making Perfect Parsley Pesto with Walnuts and Pasta
- Remove your pasta when it’s al dente. Overcooked pasta will make a mushy dish.
- If you don’t have a food processor, you can use a high-powered blender.
- Don’t forget the pasta water, this starchy water helps the sauce cling to the pasta.
How to Store Leftover Pesto Pasta Salad
Your dish will store well in the fridge for 3-4 days. Place it in a sealed container, or cover it with plastic wrap, it just gets better with age as the flavors come together.
You can also freeze your pasta for later. Place it in a freezer-safe Ziploc bag or airtight container for up to 2 months. Thaw in the fridge.
Can I use dried parsley instead of fresh for parsley pesto?
No, you can’t use dried parsley for this pesto recipe. The texture and flavor will be very different. For the best results, use fresh parsley.
Questions That Come Up About Pasta Salad
Is parsley pesto gluten-free?
This pesto should be gluten-free, but check your own ingredients to be sure.
Can I add other vegetables to the pasta salad?
Of course! You can add fresh cherry tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted bell peppers, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, red onions or blanched asparagus, to add color, texture, and flavor to the dish. You can also add sme mozzarella balls if you’re a cheese lover.
Is pesto pasta best served warm or cold?
You can serve this salad either way, but I think it’s best served cold.
What can You Serve With Pesto Pasta Salad
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Parsley Pesto Pasta Salad with Walnuts
- 2 ounces parmesan cheese
- 3 cups fresh parsley
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 cup walnuts
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 anchovy fillets
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- 1 lb pasta spiral shaped
- Cook the pasta in salted water per package instructions. Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water.
- In a food processor, process the parmesan cheese until it s finely ground then remove it from the food processor.
- Next add the parsley, oil, walnuts, capers, lemon juice, garlic, anchovies, pepper flakes, salt and pepper to the food processor and process until it is smooth. Add the parmesan to the pesto mixture.
- Toss the pesto with the hot pasta adding ½ cup of the pasta water. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot or cold.
Barbara’s Tips + Notes
- Remove your pasta when it’s al dente. Overcooked pasta will make a mushy dish.
- If you don’t have a food processor, you can grind or grate your ingredients using other kitchen tools or a high-powered blender.
- Don’t forget to reserve the pasta water, it will help the pesto cling to the pasta.