Way back in college, I was introduced to creamy pesto sauce, and promptly adopted it as my in-a-pinch go-to pasta sauce. Creamy pesto sauce had the fresh zing of pesto with the comforting creaminess of an Alfredo sauce, and could transform a simple, inexpensive penne and broccoli dish into something magical.
Except that, at $3+ per packet at Safeway (before I realized the amazing $1.61 per packet offered by Amazon), the price was less than magic. And, as a lowly sauce-in-a-packet, it contained quite a few of those mysterious -ate ingredients and was not, actually, very fresh at all. In other words, it was a perfect candidate for the 2010 Creamy Pesto Makeover Edition.
Pesto is such a fresh and easy-to-make sauce – just pop the ingredients in a food processor, blend until smooth, and Tah-Dah! Fresh pesto. Whip up a quick bechamel or other cream sauce, add a little of that (more or less, to your preference) to the pesto, and Tah-Dah Numero Dos! Fresh creamy pesto sauce. The beauty of it is that you probably have all the ingredients for a cream sauce on hand (a little butter, a little flour, milk, optional Parmesan), so little to no shopping or added cost is involved there. And then you can pick up basil or another good-looking herb at the farmer’s market or supermarket (or even used sun-dried tomatoes from your pantry for a creamy tomato pesto sauce!), a handful of pine nuts or walnuts (whichever you have on hand or think will complement your particular herb/veggie selection), and a clove of garlic – relatively minimal expense for the centerpiece of your sauce.
If hasn’t become clear yet, it should be clear now: I really, really love recipes whose ingredients can be infinitely varied depending on what flavor you’re in the mood for, what’s actually in season and available, and what’s on sale. And this dish certainly allows plenty of leeway to accommodate all of three of those important aspects of planning a meal. And if that still seems too complicated, just remember that the essence of this recipe. Creamy Pesto Sauce = Your Favorite Pesto Sauce + Your Favorite (& Easy) Cream Sauce. Whether freshly made from local farmers market ingredients, frozen and defrosted sauces leftover from prior meals, pre-made refrigerated or jarred varietals, or out-of-the-pantry just-add-milk packets – no one’s judging. But do try combining the best that the saucy worlds of decadent cream and fresh herbs/veggies have to offer. I promise you’ll scarf up the results.
Notes on ingredients and substitutions: I’m lucky that, here in San Francisco, asparagus was both in season and on sale, but when it’s not, I usually make this with broccoli, which does an excellent job of sopping up any extra sauce. I’ve also served a little of this sauce over steamed or sautéed broccoli alone for a lighter meal, side dish or snack. As a final note, when I make this, I only make 2 cups of pasta and reserve any extra sauce for another use (usually put it in the freezer, for use with a similar dish next week), but I keep the same amount of veggies because I prefer a higher veggie-to-pasta ratio. Do as you wish.
Creamy Pesto Sauce with Sautéed Asparagus and Pasta
Makes 1 1/2 cups of sauce
1/2 c. simple basil pesto sauce (recipe below) or your favorite pesto sauce
1 1/4 c. Alfredo sauce (halve the recipe, and don’t add the Parmesan until I mention it for this recipe) or your favorite bechamel or other cream sauce
2-4 c. rotini or penne pasta
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 bunch asparagus, stems removed and stalk chopped in 2-inch pieces
Cook pasta per package instructions (for rotini, you usually boil for about 10 minutes). Meanwhile, heat oil in a large pan over medium heat, and sauté asparagus pieces for 6-9 minutes until cooked but still slightly crisp. (If pasta isn’t done at this point, remove asparagus from pan to prevent overcooking, and set aside.)
Drain pasta, and add pasta to the large pan with asparagus. Mix pesto and alfredo sauces together in a small bowl or pan, adding less or more pesto according to your preference, then add the creamy pesto sauce to the large pan. Heat creamy pesto sauce with sautéed asparagus and pasta over low heat until warm, then serve immediately.
Simple Basil Pesto Sauce
Makes 1 cup
1 1/2 c. packed basil leaves, rinsed and patted dry
2 garlic cloves, diced
1/4 c. pine nuts, toasted
1/4 c. Parmigiana Reggiano, grated
2/3 c. olive oil
salt to taste
In a food processor, blend basil, garlic, pine nuts, and Parmesan, and drizzle in the olive oil while the machine is running. Scrape down sides, then blend again until smooth. Taste, and if desired, add more salt or Parmesan. Quickly blend to mix, and then serve. Fresh pesto will keep for a couple weeks in the refrigerator if you scoop it into an airtight container and then top it with a little olive oil (acts as a protective barrier). You can also freeze it in an ice cube tray and defrost a cube or two whenever you need it for the next few months.