Healthy spaghetti al pesto is a refreshing trio of herbed pesto blended with no added oil teamed with blanched tomatoes sharing the cooking pot with whole wheat spaghetti.
Why pesto? Because it’s such an amazingly easy and refreshing dish. Besides, when someone asks, ‘what’s for dinner?’ you get to announce pasta al pesto. Let them think you’ve been slaving in the kitchen. It can be our secret.
If you’ve made pesto before, this may or may not be old news. Making pesto is nearly as simple as buying it from the store. And most certainly, when we make ourselves, we can make a healthier version.
Is pesto healthy?
I bet you can guess the answer to this one. It depends.
Even if you buy vegan pesto, it’s likely to contain some to a ton of added oil. Oil makes it creamy. It bulks it out, so there are less of the healthier (and tastier) ingredients filling those convenient tubs.
When it comes to pesto pasta, it's believed that added oil helps with the 'cling factor.' That my term for getting the pesto to cover the pasta without sinking to the bottom.
To this, I say 'there's a healthier way' to accomplish this task. We’ll get to once we start the water for the pasta and get to the pesto.
Yes, putting pesto al pasta together starts by boiling the pasta water.
I’m starting there because in the time it takes to get the pasta water boiling, the pesto is ready.
Toasted pine nuts give the combination of fresh basil, spinach, garlic, and lemon juice a deeper flavor. I didn’t go nuts here – ¼ of a cup is plenty. That brings out a pinch of flavor without overwhelming the other ingredients.
Toasting pine nuts follows the same basic principle that I use for making my favorite seed mix. You want a heavier-bottomed pan. That helps to control the heat and keep the pan from getting so hot that you immediately burn the pine nuts.
Focus your attention on this task. It takes less than 2 minutes. Nothing gets me madder than when I turn away to attend to something else, only to end up with burned pine nuts. Inevitably, I’ll decide to try it again, only to discover, alas, that was the last of those pine nuts.
Stand in front of the stove and use a wooden spoon to move the pine nuts. The minute they start to brown, take them off the heat. You can even transfer the right to the food processor.
Except for the toasted pine nuts, everything else to make pesto is raw. I prefer a 50-50 mix of fresh basil and spinach. You can play around with the ratio depending on taste preference and what you have available. Don't need to get so precise with this recipe that you end up leaving, say a precious pinch of fresh basil. You know what happens next. The leftover gets shoved to the back of the fridge and eventually gets tossed out.
I’ll also fully admit that I use the basil leaves and the tender stems. The stems have flavor and fiber. If that’s problematic for you, then use only the leaves. I use this same trick when I chop cilantro because it’s such a pain to pick all the leaves off and then look at the little tender top stems. Waste not.
After pitching in the basil and spinach, along with the pine nuts, add the garlic. I use three cloves. If you are not a garlic fiend, cut that back. I always peel and then slice the garlic a bit. It just helps it to process better. If you have one of those high-speed food processors, you won’t need to do that. Just know, I am envious as I don’t have one.
When you first start blending, use three tablespoons of lemon juice (about one medium lemon). Taste the pesto and then adjust it. I also add ½ a teaspoon of salt. It’s optional, but it helps bring out the garlic flavor.
How to measure spaghetti
Pesto made? Water boiling? Add your spaghetti.
It's confession time. I am terrible at ‘shooting from the hip’ when it comes to measuring dry spaghetti. For this reason, I’ve learned a few techniques for cooking the right amount of spaghetti for the job.
The general guideline is 2 oz. (5722 gm.) of dry spaghetti per person. That yields 1 cup of cooked pasta. If you don’t have a measuring scale, let’s use a bit of available visualization.
Grab the spaghetti between your thumb and index finger and go for a diameter that is roughly the size of a U.S. quarter, a 2 Euro coin, or a U.K. 2 pence (cent) coin. No coins? Try looking at the back of the package – yep, many packages have a circle that says something like 'use this amount.'
In the service of the spoon
Got a spaghetti spoon? Ever wondered why there's a hole in the middle? Sure it might be to help the water drain off, but it's got an even slicker agenda. That hole approximately measures 2 ounces of dry spaghetti. Who knew?
More tips for making spaghetti al pesto
Don’t rinse the pasta. The starch from unrinsed pasta helps to create the adhesion between the sauce and the pasta. In other words, it makes the sauce stick.
Only rinse pasta if you are serving it cold, for say, pasta salad. Rinsing stops the cooking process and keeps the cold pasta from sticking together.
Don’t overcook the pasta. Try it a few times as it’s cooking. Al Dante means tender, but firm to the tooth. That’s the goal.
Remember my super tip for making moist pesto pasta? Here it is! Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water. After you mix the pesto with the spaghetti and tomatoes, you can add the cooking water for added moisture. That starchy stuff keeps the spaghetti from becoming dry and creates more fusion with the pasta.
Add the tomatoes at the 2-minute Warning
Poor little things, I didn’t mention the sweet cherry tomatoes. Rinse 2 cups of cherry tomatoes and add them 2 minutes (more or less) before the pasta is tender. Yep, we’ll read the back of the pasta package again. Mine says 12 minutes for cooking. So after 10 minutes, I’ll dump in the cherry tomatoes.
Ideally, the tomatoes are warm and just starting to split. Less time than you’d want for making a tomato-artichoke pasta, but enough that folks can tell how crafty you are that you cooked tomatoes right in the pasta pot. Cook that you are.
Drain (don’t rinse) the spaghetti and tomatoes together and get them right in the bowl. Mix in the pesto you’ve been trying not to 'taste test' all this time.
This dish exemplifies spaghetti on the lighter side. It's ideal for light dinner, as a side served with comparable dishes or even a fancy lunch. Garnish it with lemon wedges or torn basil leaves or go for Parmesan gusto.
If you use a prepackaged brand of Parmesan, be sure it’s vegan and oil-free. I recommend making a batch of our favorite baked hemp seed Parmesan. It’s quick and oh, so good!
Place a plate of this in front of me, and I’ll try not to eat with such unruly manners that I'm not shooting cherry tomatoes across the table. I might even try not to eat a spoonful of that hemp Parmesan straight out-of-the bowl. But this is all aspirational. There's no predicting what happens when my eater's gusto kicks in. Eat healthy food, and the gusto doesn’t need to be followed by guilt. Peace.Print