Give basil the night off: Cilantro-Parsley Pesto takes pasta in a lively new direction

by Terry B on June 23, 2010

Surprising cilantro-parsley pesto needs only some tomatoes, onion and feta to make a quick, delicious pasta dinner that won’t overheat your kitchen. Recipe below.


I would make a terrible farmer. Once something’s planted in the ground, I want to be harvesting it. Now. This spring, we (and by we, I mean Marion) planted some tomatoes and a few herbs in the yard. The other day, wanting some pesto, I went outside to glare at our tiny basil plants, hoping it might hurry them along. It didn’t. Not sure why I thought it would work—that same impatient fatherly glare has never had much effect on our kids either.

So I tromped back inside, still wanting pesto and not wanting to resort to store-bought. Then I picked up the current issue of Food & Wine. There, tucked into a catchall piece of various chefs giving tips for being frugal, Chicago’s own Rick Bayless was talking about using leftover cilantro and parsley to make a pesto. Ha! Screw you, little weenie basil plants. I just met some cuter, cooler herbs. (Not really—I do love basil. But the idea of a pesto change-up had definitely caught my eye.)

What had gotten me thinking about pesto was the various spells of hot, muggy weather that have been sweeping through the Midwest—and indeed, across much of the country. The kind of weather that makes you reluctant to heat up the kitchen with too much cooking. The dish above is perfect for this kind of weather. Other than pan toasting some nuts for the pesto and quickly sautéing some grape tomatoes and onions, the only thing you cook is the pasta.

Make the pesto ahead of time to allow the flavors to blend—at least an hour ahead and up to a day or two. I made mine in the morning before leaving for work. There was something wonderful about the way it filled the kitchen with the heady fragrances of cilantro, parsley and garlic. Interestingly, the flavors mellowed over time, all becoming team players with no one big star; the cilantro especially calmed down. The result was more complex than the recipe would indicate. And if I say so myself, it was delicious. Besides serving over pasta, this pesto would make a simple, lively sauce for grilled chops or chicken breasts.

Besides the pesto, little else is required for this light, flavorful, meatless meal. Some sautéed tomatoes and onions, a little crumbled feta—we’re on a real feta kick these days, by the way. Don’t be surprised if it shows up here again before long.

Pasta with Cilantro-Parsley Pesto, Tomatoes and Feta
Serves 4 as a light meal

For the pesto:
1/2 cup pecans (or pine nuts or walnuts)
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped (discarding thick stems—about 2 cups)
1 bunch Italian parsley, roughly chopped (discarding thick stems—about 2 cups)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt, freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (see Kitchen Notes)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (see Kitchen Notes)

For the pasta:
12 ounces linguine or other flat pasta
1 small onion, sliced
1-1/2 to 2 cups grape or cherry tomatoes, larger ones halved
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
scant cup of crumbled feta (see Kitchen Notes)

Make the pesto. Toast the nuts in a dry, nonstick skillet over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally to avoid scorching, for 3 to 5 minutes. Your nose will tell you when they’re toasted. Transfer to a plate and set aside to cool. Combine cilantro, parsley, garlic, nuts, salt and a generous grinding of black pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to chop and blend, scraping down the sides with a spatula if necessary. With processor running, add olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Process until smooth—again, scraping sides with spatula as needed. Transfer pesto to an airtight container, stir in crushed red pepper and refrigerate for at least an hour, preferably longer, up to 2 days. Makes about 1 cup of pesto, enough for 2 batches of this dish; you can freeze the rest for future use.

Make the pasta. Bring a large pot of water to boil. While water is coming to a boil, you can slice the onion and tomatoes and crumble the feta. Salt boiling water generously and cook pasta according to package directions. About 5 or 6 minutes before pasta is done, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add oil and sauté onions for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid overly browning them. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, until tomatoes begin to wrinkle. Transfer to a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of cooking water, and toss pasta with 1/2 cup of pesto. If the pasta seems too dry, add a little cooking water. I didn’t need to do this. Divide pasta among 4 plates or pasta bowls. Sprinkle crumbled feta over each plate, about 1/4 cup. Spoon tomato/onion mixture over plates and serve.

Kitchen Notes

Check the oil. Usually my recipes say good quality olive oil—or even just olive oil. It plays such an important role in this dish, though, that you want a really good extra virgin olive oil, with its more assertive taste. And although I almost never cook with extra virgin olive oil (because of its lower smoke point, among other reasons), I used it here. It can tolerate the medium heat used and contributes to the flavor of the finished dish.

Spice things up. I used  just 1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper when I made this recipe. It provided just the slightest spicy kick to the dish; next time, I might double the amount. But let your own taste buds be your guide.

Crumble your own feta. Yeah, you can buy crumbled feta. You can also buy grated Parmesan. Don’t do either. Both become dry and flavorless. Crumbling your own good quality feta gives you far better results—it also gives you an excuse to nibble on leftover feta.


{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Chocolate Shavings June 23, 2010 at 12:43 pm

That sounds like my kind of pasta!

Christina June 23, 2010 at 3:56 pm

I’ve read about cilantro pesto, but I could never imagine myself making it. But, you’re turning me into a believer. I’ll double the red pepper–lately I just can’t get enough spice. I’ve turned up the heat on just about everything. Which of the nuts that you listed did you end up using? For some reason, I’m imagining it with walnuts.

And just think, when your basil finally is all grown up, won’t it even taste better because you’ve had to wait for it?

Terry B June 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Thanks, Chocolate Shavings!

Christina—I hope you do try it. I’m thinking I might try a cilantro only version to see if it amps up that taste note. But this really was nicely complex. I used pecans, actually. They’re one of our favorite nuts for all kinds of dishes. I’ve even been substituting them for walnuts lately in this Endive Salad with Blue Cheese and Walnuts recipe. And you’re right, of course. When we finally have basil, I’ll be all over it.

Ruth June 24, 2010 at 2:10 am

Sounds great and looks delicious -or vice a versa! I have had the worst luck growing cilantro -and I love to have it fresh in the garden for my pico de gallo – simple and delicious. Now, the basil plants are looking great! Any hints on keeping cilantro growing?

Terry B June 24, 2010 at 2:45 am

Thanks, Ruth! Alas, I must admit I buy my cilantro. We live in a neighborhood with a large Latino population, so cilantro is abundant, inexpensive and fresh in most of the stores around us.

Randi June 24, 2010 at 4:49 pm

What timing!
We had a side dish of rice and beans mixed with cilantro pesto at my sister’s for a Father’s Day dinner. Wow was it ever good. I took some home where my youngest son and I fought for the leftovers.
I will be trying this too!

Randi June 24, 2010 at 4:52 pm

I live outside of Toronto and have a hard time with it too. Even though I take good care of it, it looks neglected.
I have read lately that cilantro likes a more sandy soil and that when you take cuttings from it it doesn’t grow back as quick. Can’t give you my experience with that as I’ve never had a nice big bunch to snip. I keep trying….

joan Nova June 24, 2010 at 11:02 pm

I totally ‘get’ it! Mint too is a good substitute for basil.

Terry B June 25, 2010 at 3:45 am

The rice and beans sound delicious, Randi. I’m thinking about tossing some boiled new or fingerling potatoes with some of this pesto. And thanks for responding to Ruth with more knowledge than I have on the subject. Our attempts at growing parsley have similarly led to rangy, long-stemmed plants with not much in the way of leaves, so we just buy that, as we do cilantro.

Joan—Mint is an interesting idea, although I would see that as something to use sparingly. Just as it will in the garden, it can really take over in cooking.

Ruth June 25, 2010 at 4:11 am

@Randi, Thanks so much for the info. Every year I try again – and just get disappointed. I thought I had a good one going this summer – but, it too has flopped. I will definitely try the sand tip. If that doesn’t work, it will be trips to the local store. I say that – but, guarantee, I will try again next year. Thanks again. Cheers, Ruth

Dani H June 26, 2010 at 12:33 am

If I haven’t mentioned this before, it’s probably because I don’t want it to get in the way of our culinary friendship ~ I don’t eat much pasta. I always have a box of fettucine in the pantry for when the craving hits, and prefer a sauce made with fresh or canned tomatoes versus a “tomato sauce.” I just started making baguettes last month and I’m thinking this would make a fabulous bruschetta ~ basically the same recipe without the pasta. I LOVE cilantro and we get beautiful fresh bunches at any grocery store here in Arizona. I’ve been on a roasted garlic kick, too, including roasted garlic soup. Oh, and experimenting with French onion soup, though I have not yet found the perfect recipe. Have you tried the feta with scrambled eggs yet?

I think it’s dinner time. I have learned to visit your blog BEFORE meals as I always leave here hungry. A great recipe, Terry! Thanks and have a great weekend.

Terry B June 26, 2010 at 2:18 am

Ruth, you sound like a true recidivist gardener. Good luck with the cilantro this year.

You know, Dani, we’ve gone through phases over the years with various starches. For a while, we were going through 20-pound bags of rice like nobody’s business; now we rarely eat it. Back then, we ate little pasta, but now it’s back with a vengeance. And yes, we did try feta with scrambled eggs. Delicious! We didn’t have any tomatoes to add, but it was great just the same. Thanks for the idea.

Phoo-d June 26, 2010 at 4:20 am

What a lovely pasta dish! My puny basil plants never seem to kick off enough leaves to make pesto either. Using other herbs is a great idea to stretch it out and liven up the flavor.

Debbie June 26, 2010 at 8:07 pm

This sounds really good! I’m always on the lookout for quick recipes where I don’t have to buy a bunch of ingredients. I have many of these on hand. Thank you for sharing. I’m now following you on twitter.


Terry B June 26, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Phoo-D—Actually, we eventually get plenty of basil every year, later in the summer. I’m just way too impatient and want it now!

Thanks, Debbie! And thanks for the follow. We tend to take the European (or mock-European) approach, shopping more days than not for what will be dinner that evening. But any time we can cook just from our pantry and fridge, I always enjoy that.

Mumsie July 5, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Hi! Thanks for sharing this recipe; I’d always thought cilantro was only good for Mexican food…boy, was I wrong. It arrived at a perfect time as I had cilantro and parsley sitting in the frig with nothing to do. I used it 2 ways : I added a good dollop of the pesto to some mayo, then used it to top poultry burgers with roasted red peppers, arugula and grilled onion…excellent! The freshness of the herbs was perfect with the poultry. The rest I thinned with a bit more EVOO and used for a Marguerita type pizza…soooo good! Thanks again; I really enjoy reading your blog.

Terry B July 6, 2010 at 1:11 am

Thanks, Mumsie! I want one of those burgers right now.

chytte August 29, 2010 at 2:58 am

This is really good! I made some changes though. In the blender, I add some basil and parmesan cheese. The pine nuts are expensive so I just used less than a half cup to save some for future use. The tomatoes and feta cheese gives the kick in the taste! This is a keeper…Thanks so much for the recipe!

Terry B August 31, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Thanks, Chytte! One of the great things about pesto is that it invites variations on the theme.

EricaW May 5, 2012 at 9:17 pm

I paired the pesto with roasted sweet peppers. I stuffed the peppers with goat cheese( that I seasoned with garlic and herbs) and roasted them for about 7-8 minutes until some color developed. I am serving them in a few minutes for an appetizer.

Legomenon February 26, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Had some leftover cilantro and parsley and I decided to use them up in this recipe. I also added from fennel fronds I had in the refrigerator, too. Turned out pretty well, I have to say! Thanks for posting.

Terry B March 2, 2014 at 9:33 pm

EricaW, what a wonderful improvisation! I love cooking like this—and when my recipes inspire others to do so.

The fennel fronds sound like a delicious addition, Legomenon. Glad you liked the dish.

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