Dinner With My Family #7: Spaghetti di Pesto alla Genovese

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Each week, I’ll present a low-cost meal (or a meal that demonstrates a lot of options for cutting costs) that my family eats for dinner and enjoys. Many of the recipes will be vegan or vegetarian, with options to add other ingredients for non-vegetarians.

I love Italian food. Sure, it can be pasta heavy, but it’s also often heavy on the fresh vegetables and the herbs, creating some delicious tastes, amazing aromas, and surprisingly healthy dishes.

Finished meal

One dish we often make is what we call, in our own slang, “pesto pasta.” Basically, we just make up a batch of pesto, which is really easy, then we cook up whatever pasta we have on hand. We mix the two together, serve them with a side vegetable, and enjoy. I can bring this meal from idea to the table in fifteen minutes, and the cost isn’t very high, either.

What You Need
Obviously, you’ll need some sort of pasta. Pesto clings to almost any type of pasta, so I usually just use whatever we have on hand.

Ingredients for pesto

There are infinite varieties of pesto, so for this recipe, I’m just going to use the most basic kind of pesto, known as “pesto alla genovese.”

All you need is 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, about 1 cup of basil leaves (or 1/3 cup dried basil), 1/2 teaspoon salt, a dash of black pepper, a teaspoon of minced garlic, and two tablespoons of either walnuts or pine nuts (the picture above uses pine nuts). You’ll also want to add 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese if you wish, but it’s pretty tasty without it.

The ingredients add up to a couple dollars, but they make for a spectacular dish.

The Night Before (or Early That Day)
Making the pesto is easy and it can be done a day in advance.

All you have to do is tear up the basil leaves into small bits (if you’re using fresh basil, that is) and add it to a blender or food processor. Add all of the other ingredients except for the olive oil, then add a small portion of the oil. Blend for a few seconds, then add a bit more oil. Repeat until all the oil is added, then pour/scrape the pesto out of the blender.

Pesto

You’re done. That’s it. Put the pesto in a small container and stick it in the refrigerator.

Preparing the Meal
I like the pesto slightly warm, so I pull it out of the refrigerator and heat it gently before the meal.

At the same time, I cook the pasta according to the appropriate directions, then drain the pasta. I then mix the pasta and pesto together until the pasta is coated, then serve it with a side of vegetables.

Finished meal

In this case, the side vegetable was some leftover broccoli and cauliflower from an earlier meal.

Optional Ingredients
The pesto itself is incredibly flexible, with thousands of variations.

Pistou consists of just olive oil, basil, and garlic, and is quite delicious. Pesto alla siciliana adds one cup of diced tomatoes, replaces the nuts with almonds, and uses only 1/4 cup basil leaves (or 1/8 cup dried basil). Other ingredients to try include grilled bell peppers, black olives, lemon peel, coriander, mushrooms, and miso paste.

Of course, you can also prepare this with a meat in addition to the sauce. Chicken is particularly good with pasta and pesto sauce.

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26 thoughts on “Dinner With My Family #7: Spaghetti di Pesto alla Genovese

  1. Pesto sauces also lend really well to both bulk cooking and local eating. When your herb of choice is in season (we use cilantro and parsley in varying proportions — like you said, pesto is super-flexible), buy a big bundle and make a huge batch of the sauce. Any sauce you don’t eat that night or the next day for lunch, pour into ice cube trays and freeze, then pop the cubes into a ziplock bag for later. When we’re feeling lazy about dinner, we just boil up some pasta and microwave 1-2 cubes each. Delicious, healthy, and cheap!

  2. I have a very similar pesto recipe, make a ton when I harvest my basil, and freeze it for winter use. (Walnuts are much cheaper than pine nuts.)

    Another thing you can add when you put it into the food processor is dehydrated tomatoes, either dry, or ones that have been stored in oil. You can double the volume! It tastes amazing with pasta, or just spread thickly on a whole wheat english muffin, with a side salad.

  3. I’m not sure how the pasta dish as featured can be considered healthy. I can’t view the pictures due to a firewall, so they might be whole wheat pastas. If not, isn’t this pasta dish basically flour and oil?

  4. I also just saw a pesto recipe with edamame added, which would add some protein.

    & brad #3 – yes, he used whole wheat pasta, & they added broccoli & cauliflower as a side dish.
    I’ve said this before – every single meal you eat does not have to be perfectly balanced.

  5. Another way to make pesto is to use greens such as arugula, kale, or chard. This is especially useful when greens are in season and they are plentiful and inexpensive.
    The method is the same except that you clean, trim, and quickly blanch the greens in boiling water to soften them up a bit. Pulse in a food processor with the remaining ingredients. A nice added touch, I find, are a couple of large green olives (pitted). You use less olive oil that way, too.
    Also, depending on where you live, pine nuts (or pinon nuts in my neck of the woods) cost a TON of money. You can very easily omit the nuts and add more oil as needed or use walnuts, which tend to be less expensive.

  6. I would even suggest just tossing the vegetables in with the pasta – it’ll save a dish and add texture and variety in each bite. And be extra delicious!

  7. I am Italian and I gotta say there is nothing surprising about the food we eat being healthy, nor is our diet pasta-heavy. Italian dishes are not all full of mozzarella and ground beef.

  8. Make in bulk in the summer(when basil is in season) and freeze in ice cube trays. For best texture, freeze without added cheese, then add freshly grated parmesan/romano cheese if desired at cooking time. I pull a pesto cube or two out of the freezer when I start the water boiling for the pasta, then add a few spoonfuls of boiling water when the pasta is almost done to complete the thaw and improve the spreading of the pesto sauce. In fact, that’s looking like a good dinner idea for tonight.

  9. I’ll have to try the pesto with walnuts (or any of the other non-pine nut options). Although I love the taste of pine nuts, I am apparently one of the unfortunate few afflicted with “pine mouth,” which leaves me with a nasty metallic taste in my mouth for many days. So, if you’ve never tried pine nuts, beware!

    Thanks for sharing your recipes, Trent!

  10. Gee, and I thought I would be original and point out that pesto doesn’t have to be made with pine nuts and pesto. I have made it with spinach or zucchini. Although my favorite is with the basil.

    One of my favorite dinners.

  11. You can also make good pesto by replacing the basil with nettles (blanch for 1 minute first) or garlic scapes (in which case, you won’t need minced garlic).

  12. We usually use almonds for the pine nuts, and I never use more than 2 tablespoons of olive oil, just add a little water or stock to thin if necessary. If you still want that cheezy flavor, use a little nutritional yeast instead. You will never miss the parmesan.

  13. Another great way to use the pesto is in a grilled cheese sandwich. Use the pesto as you would butter on one side of each slice of bread. Add a slice of mozzarella cheese and top that with a slice of large tomato, cover with the other slice of bread (pesto is on the inside of sandwich) and toast on the griddle, turning to brown each side.
    It is absolutely delicious!

  14. Liane, that sounds wonderful!
    I grow basil every summer, but it’s been ages since I made pesto. Definitely adding to my “must do” list for this summer. Thanks Trent!

  15. My mother would make pesto in bulk and freeze in tupperware. The trick she used was to make sure the containers were air bubble free and then pour a tiny layer of olive oil over top of the pesto, this prevents any freezer burn. We would have pesto year round from those containers and you would never know it wasn’t fresh from the garden.

  16. This looks great and easy. Funny but I never realized how easy it was to make your own pesto. (& I can imagine so much more inexpensive.) I’m going to add it to our rotating weekly menu plan. Thanks for the great idea.

  17. Thank you! Great idea, at the end of the season we have huge basil bushes and it always seemed a waste to compost them. This dish might have been served by chopping the broccoli (it was laready cooked) and mixing it in with the pasta and pesto. I’d then serve with small green salad.

  18. THANK YOU #11 kristine for the tip about the lemon juice. Great recipe, Trent!

    Using PISTACCIO nuts instead of pinoli or walnuts or almonds makes a pesto that is out of this world!

    I omit the salt in the pesto but always serve Parmesan cheese (which is quite salty) with the pasta. This is one of my absolutely favorite fast dishes.

  19. Use one of the milder greens, and pecans instead of pine nuts. I’m allergic to pine nuts so I substitute almost any nut. Raw peanuts also work well, and raw garbanzo beans have a taste similar to raw peanuts but only 2/3 of the calorie count.

    I’d love to see some instructions on canning this stuff. Current USDA recommendations don’t allow canning with oil, but if it can be done commercially, home canners should be able to do it.

  20. Here is an easy way to make the recipe even better–lightly toast the nuts before you put them in the food processor. It will make the pesto taste amazing.

  21. Another variation is to use spinach with (or in place of) the basil. Pesto is very forgiving when it comes to using different ingredients.

  22. Thank you everyone for the tip about freezing the pesto – didn’t know you could do that. What an easy dinner that would be for those times one doesn’t want to cook or really make a mess.

  23. In the summer we add cherry tomato halves from our garden when mixing in the pesto plus some freshly ground pepper.

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