When Anguel & I first started dating, we were working intense corporate jobs that regularly kept us at the office past dinner. Most nights involved take out food eaten in the company of colleagues (or alone), so it’s safe to say that dinners at home were particularly special. When we first moved in together, we made a version of this salad to celebrate. It was by no means fancy, but it had a short ingredient list, came together quickly and tasted far better than any salad we’d had at a restaurant. We were hooked.
And now, six years later, we’re still in love with it. In fact, we even served this Pea & Pesto Spinach Salad at our wedding! For such a simple dish, we’re honestly so surprised by how crazy people went for it. We hesitated to share the recipe on the blog for the longest time, because it kind of feels like a non-recipe recipe. But, after a lot of post-wedding pestering from friends and family, we figured it was only fair to share it all with you too.
The basics of this salad are exactly what the name implies: peas, pesto and spinach. We gravitate towards this salad on busy weeks, when all we have time for is a five minute trip to the grocery store. All you need to do is grab a box of pre-washed baby spinach, a bag of frozen peas (if you don’t already have some sitting at the bottom of your freezer), and a few other pesto-related ingredients and you’re off to the races. It’s also the kind of impressive salad you can make for guests, and they’ll have no clue how easy it was for you to whip up. In fact, it kind of feels like cheating.
When we first started out making this salad, we relied on store-bought pesto for the dressing. And if you’re in a pinch, there’s no shame in going this route. But, if we’re being honest, the homemade pesto dressing below is definitely our favorite way to enjoy this salad. Over the years we’ve found it to be the best balance of fresh basil flavor, salt, acid - and not to mention, most reliable when you make it yourself, since store-bought brands vary significantly. To make assembly happen even faster, you can make the Fresh Pesto Dressing a day in advance.
If you are making the pesto dressing in advance, we’d recommend squeezing a bit of extra fresh lemon juice just before serving. It’s a simple trick that helps wake up flavors of something that’s been sitting in the fridge. You’d be surprised how much lemon juice (or acid more generally) helps give even a store-bought sauce a little extra boost. Just a heads up: Fresh basil is prone to oxidation, so if you make the dressing in advance, don’t be scared if the top layer of the dressing looks darker after sitting in the fridge overnight. Simply give it a quick stir and you’re good to go. It still tastes great. To minimize the darkening effect, you can also place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the sauce, before sealing it a jar or airtight container. The plastic wrap will minimize the sauce’s exposure to air, which will further reduce discoloring.
This salad is vegetarian (see note below on cheeses, including how some might not actually be vegetarian-friendly!). For a vegan option, we’ve included recipe notes on how to alter the pesto dressing to be dairy-free, without needing to hunt down any specialty vegan cheeses. If you do have a favorite vegan parmesan cheese substitute, you can try subbing it 1:1.
Pea and Pesto Spinach Salad
- 3 tablespoons pine nuts
- ½ lb baby spinach
- 1½ cups frozen green peas
- 3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese (see note 1)
Fresh Pesto Dressing (see note 2)
- 3 tablespoons pine nuts
- 1½ cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves (about 2.5 oz, see note 3)
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup Parmesan cheese (see note 1)
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 clove garlic
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ⅛ teaspoon black pepper
- Toast pine nuts: Add the pine nuts for both the Salad and Dressing (6 tablespoons total) to a dry skillet over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 1 to 3 minutes. Transfer 3 tablespoons of toasted pine nuts to a food processor, set aside the remaining 3 tablespoons for garnish.
- Defrost peas: Add peas to a large bowl filled with lukewarm water. Set aside to defrost.
- Make Pesto Dressing: To the pine nuts (in the food processor), add basil, olive oil, Parmesan, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and pepper. Pulse until a smooth paste forms. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
- Strain peas: Drain peas in a colander. Shake thoroughly to remove excess water.
- Assemble: Wipe the large bowl dry, then add peas and spinach. Add pesto dressing and toss to coat leaves evenly. Sprinkle with the reserved pine nuts and Parmesan. Serve immediately.
- Parmesan cheese: Imported Parmesan cheese typically contains animal-based rennet. If you wish to avoid this, look for cheese labelled as "vegetarian friendly" or lists "microbial enzymes" as an ingredient (instead of rennet) . Asiago cheese is also a good alternative. For a vegan option, either: a) use a store-bought vegan shredded Parmesan substitute, or b) omit cheese from dressing and garnish, and instead add ⅛ teaspoon extra salt + ½ teaspoon nutritional yeast to the dressing (for one batch/1x this recipe). The salt and nutritional yeast compensate for some of the salt and cheesy flavor from the omitted cheese.
- Fresh Pesto Dressing substitute: If you don’t want to make your own, you can substitute one batch (1x) with ¾ cup store-bought pesto sauce + 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice. Premade pesto varies significantly by brand, so you may also need to add extra salt & pepper.
- Fresh basil: We usually find that a large bag (4 oz/112 g) of basil usually yields about 1½ cups (or 2.5 oz/70g) tightly packed basil leaves, once separated from their stems.
- Serving suggestions: Serves 4 as a side salad or appetizer. Serves 2 as a main.
- Recipe adapted from Ina Garten's Pesto Pea Salad