Every time I am in New York City I find myself revisiting my favorite old spots. One such spot is a little restaurant in my old ‘hood called Bread. I used to frequent this place regularly for their fantastic atmosphere and delicious and simply prepared fare. I always left inspired to recreate what I’d ordered. This past May I was in NYC and I enjoyed a delicious evening of catching up with my friend, Annick. Both food lovers, we decided to split a few items one of which was pasta with pesto and asparagus. What arrived was a generous bowl of aromatic pasta with the most beautiful spring green pesto sauce. I forget the exact type of pasta used but I found something at Whole Foods that resembles it closely called, strozzapreti (the translation of which means ‘priest strangler’ – yikes!). It is similar to the size and shape of the asparagus that accompanied this pasta and it also holds the sauce well. Ever since my return from New York I’ve been thinking about this dish and I’ve tried to make it myself several times. What made this pesto sauce so special was the balance of aromatic light basil notes paired with a rich creaminess. I think I’ve finally managed to come pretty close with this recipe. It’s such a great meal on its own or served alongside chicken, fish, or just about anything.
Basil Pesto Sauce with Asparagus and Strozzapreti
2 Big handfuls of fresh basil (use the basil leaves, remove thick stalks)
1 Handful of fresh baby spinach
3 Tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
1/2 Clove of garlic (or one really small clove)
2-4 Tablespoons of olive oil
1/4 Teaspoon of sea salt
Squeeze of lemon juice
1 bunch of asparagus (preferably the thin ones)
1/2 to 3/4 lb. Strozzapreti pasta (or something similar in size and shape) – I factor 1/2 lb. for 2-3 people, leftovers are great the next day too if you decide to err on the generous side
3 Tablespoons lowfat milk
2 Tablespoons cream
1) Begin by making the pesto in a food processor. I usually toast the pine nuts first so that they have enough time to cool while I prepare everything else. Toasting is done by just adding the nuts to a dry pan and placing over medium heat – gently shuffle them in the pan so that they get a golden color on most sides. This happens quickly so be sure to keep a watchful eye on them. Let them cool on a plate before adding to the food processor. Meanwhile add the basil and spinach to the food processor along with the garlic, salt, and lemon juice. If the pine nuts have cooled you can add them now. Blend these while streaming in the olive oil through the feed tube in your food processor. Begin by just adding a few tablespoons and then add more very slowly until you get a thick yet slightly runny consistency. Err on the side of dry because you can always add more olive oil if needed. I find that the amount of olive oil and salt will vary so I’ve provided amounts to start with although you might find you need more. After everything has been blended taste it, if it needs more salt add another pinch – you can add a little more lemon juice or olive oil too if needed. Pesto is one of those things that is super simple, and once you know the ingredients and a rough idea of quantities you won’t need to measure because you can just taste as you go. (The reason I’ve added spinach to this pesto recipe is to make the sauce extra green, typical pesto also usually has parmesan cheese that I’ve omitted here.)
2) Once you’ve got the pesto ready to go it’s time to make the pasta and asparagus. In a pot begin boiling water for the pasta – cook the pasta according to the package directions – you want the pasta to be al dente. Then heat a skillet under medium heat and add a few tablespoons of olive oil. I chop the asparagus on a diagonal approximately the same size as the pasta – chop off the bottom stalky part which is too tough to eat and discard. A trick in preparing asparagus is that if you hold the tip and the end of the asparagus and slightly bend the staulkier end – the spot where it snaps indicates the part you should chop off and discard. Add the asparagus to the skillet along with some chopped garlic (I just add the 1/2 clove that I didn’t use in the pesto) and saute until it looses its rawness. I still like the asparagus to have a little bit of crunch to it so I only saute it for about 6-8 minutes or so – this time can vary though depending on how thick the asparagus is so just taste a piece or use a fork to test how tender they are – you want them to be cooked so they are not raw and totally crunchy but you don’t want them to be limp or too soft. I’m a big advocate of tasting as you cook, if you haven’t noticed, so just taste as you go along.
3) Once the asparagus is cooked add the milk and cream to the saute pan and stir it for a minute or so – turn off the heat and then add the pesto and stir all together. It’s now time to add in the pasta. You’ll have a beautiful creamy, green, fragrant sauce. Enjoy!