Pesto is a great thing to have on hand for quick, yet delicious meals. In the time that it takes to boil a box of pasta, I can quickly puree all of the ingredients together and produce a potent mixture that gives off aromas of pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil when tossed with hot pasta. A good pesto always tastes fresh and vibrant, and this one is no exception. Though this pesto does not use the fresh basil that is traditionally used in Liguria, the baby spinach makes for an excellent substitute in the winter months, when basil is either scarce or not at its best. Spinach, unlike basil, does not oxidize readily, so a batch of this pesto will stay bright green even after being exposed to air.
Pesto is composed of many strong flavors such as pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil, and the key to keeping the flavors in balance is to toast the pine nuts and garlic before pureeing them. This step smooths out any harshness from the raw garlic and releases the oils from the pine nuts to give a necessary depth to the finished pesto. After toasting the pine nuts and garlic, they get pureed with a generous amount of baby spinach, olive oil, and good parmesan cheese until a thick emulsion is created. A touch of pasta water gives some body to the tossed pasta, and a shower of parmesan cheese ties the whole dish together. In addition to being a fast meal to make, this is a meal best devoured in mere minutes until all that is left on the plate are a few flecks of spinach.
I find that short, tubular pasta shapes work best with pesto, as the consistency of the pesto clings nicely to shapes such as rigatoni, penne, orecchiette, and cavatappi, as well as other varieties with ridged exteriors. Try this pesto next time you’re at a loss for what to make for dinner, and add some brightness to your winter evenings.
Additional uses for pesto:
- Use as a condiment in grilled panini.
- Swirl a spoonful into a bowl of vegetable soup.
- Stuff a dollop into some dough and make a few pesto-stuffed flatbreads.
- Place pesto in a bowl with extra olive oil and use it as a dipping sauce for bread.
- Puree with white beans, olive oil, and seasonings to make a unique bean dip.
- Use pesto instead of tomato sauce with pizza and top with goat cheese, mushrooms, and fresh herbs.
Spinach Pesto with Rigatoni
¼ cup raw pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, peel still on the clove
5 oz baby spinach
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for the pasta pot
¼ cup olive oil
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1 lb dry rigatoni
- Place the pine nuts and garlic cloves in a small skillet over medium heat, and toast until the pine nuts are golden brown and fragrant, 4-5 minutes. Remove from the pan, peel the garlic, and set aside.
- In the bowl of a food processor or high-speed blender, combine the pine nuts, peeled garlic, spinach, and salt. Process until thoroughly pureed, about 1 minute. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil to achieve an emulsified pesto. Transfer the pesto to a large bowl (large enough to accommodate the cooked pasta) and stir in the grated parmesan.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, then add 1 tablespoon sea salt. Add the rigatoni and cook until al dente. Drain the rigatoni, reserving 1 cup of pasta cooking water. Toss the pasta with the pesto and ¼ cup of the cooking water, adding more pasta water if necessary to achieve the desired consistency. Serve immediately, with more parmesan cheese grated on top.