Thursday, August 6, 2015

Creamy Pesto Pasta

One day, I made cilantro pesto as I am wont to do when I have extra cilantro and Parmesan cheese on hand.  Then I realized that I also had leftover cream cheese.  And there was much rejoicing.

This pasta concoction turned out to be one of my happy let’s-throw-several-yummy-things-together-and-see-what-happens success stories.  The first time I made it, I used spaghetti noodles, and the second time, I used whole wheat rotini.  I enjoyed it thoroughly both times, so you can really use any pasta that suits your fancy.  The flavors are bold enough that they stand up well to whole wheat, though, and I appreciate the wholesome heartiness.

I’m not a huge pasta person in general, but I do consider pasta an excellent vehicle for pesto.  The cream cheese lends a nice texture, but there’s not so much of it that the dish becomes heavy.  I really enjoy the slight sweetness of the broiled zucchini, and the almonds add a nice crunch.  Also, this pasta is fantastic warm or cold, which makes it an ideal leftover kind of food.  The herbs and nuts you choose to use in the pesto are variable too.  This would be fantastic with traditional basil pesto or a parsley-walnut pesto.  Go crazy.

Fun Fact: Garlic contains a phytonutrient called allium, which may contribute cholesterol-lowering benefits (evidence is still limited).  However, garlic extracts and pills may not contain the same substances that would cause this effect, so embrace the garlic breath and eat some pesto.

Creamy Pesto Pasta
1/3 cup raw almonds
1 oz. parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic
¼ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 cup packed cilantro
4-6 Tablespoons olive oil

Toast the almonds in a dry skillet over medium heat, tossing often, until golden and fragrant.  Let cool.  Cube the Parmesan cheese.  In a small food processor, pulse/grind the Parmesan until finely ground.  Remove from machine, and set aside.  Add the almonds to the food processor, and pulse until well chopped but still chunky (don’t turn them all into dust).  Remove almonds from bowl and add to Parmesan cheese.  Place the garlic and the salt in the food processor, and process until finely minced.  Add the cilantro and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and process again until finely minced.  Place the almonds and cheese back into the food processor with the herbs, and continue to pulse while drizzling the remaining olive oil into the pesto.  Add oil, and pulse until it achieves the consistency you want.  I prefer mine not too oily with the almonds still a bit chunky.

8 oz. whole wheat rotini
1-2 small zucchini, halved and sliced into ¼-inch thick slices
Olive oil
3 oz. cream cheese, softened
10 Tablespoons pesto (about one full batch)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Additional cilantro, toasted and chopped almonds, and shaved Parmesan to garnish

Bring a pot of well-salted water to boil, and add the pasta.  Boil about 10 minutes, until soft but not mushy.  Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water, and drain the rest.

In the meantime, line a baking sheet with foil, and spread the zucchini out in one layer.  Drizzle with a little bit of olive oil (1-1½ tsp.), and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.  Broil for about 5-10 minutes until the zucchini is tender and browned in spots.

Add the cream cheese and pesto to the still hot pasta, and stir to combine, adding pasta water 1 tablespoon at a time until the desired consistency is reached.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Add the broiled zucchini (as much or as little as you want), and toss.  Serve with additional cilantro, toasted almonds, and shaved Parmesan cheese.   This dish is good warm or cold.  Serves four generously.

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