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.
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.