A winter superfood gets a summer makeover: Kale Lemon Pesto with Fettuccine

by Terry B on July 3, 2013

Kale, lemon juice and zest, pistachios, garlic and Parmesan cheese make a quick, no-cook vegetarian pasta sauce—or spread for crostini. Recipe below.


I rarely find myself ahead of the curve on trends, but we cooked with kale when it was just good for you. In fact, it first appeared in a recipe here about five and a half years ago. Kale’s coolness factor has soared in the last few years, with it showing up on upscale restaurant menus everywhere. Its mere appearance there bestows instant hipness. In May, kale salads received breathless praise in the New York Times, not in the Dining section, but in Fashion & Style. And Zazzle.com even sells a t-shirt proclaiming “Kale is the new black.”

Of course, part of fashion is being attuned to the season. And what could be more summery than pesto? Usually made with basil, this no-cook sauce is a staple of Italian summers. It can be tossed with pasta for a meal (our favorite use) or slathered on crostini for an appetizer. Here, kale sheds its winter greens identity and shows basil a thing or two.

One thing that makes pesto a summer favorite on pasta is that the only thing you cook is the pasta. So you’re not tied to a hot stove or heating up the kitchen. The pesto itself comes together on your cutting board and in your food processor. And as you toss the room temperature pesto with the cooked pasta, it cools the dish slightly, making it seem less heavy. Also, the pasta’s heat amplifies the pesto’s already potent fragrance, welcoming everyone to the table.

A word on that fragrance. Much of it comes from garlic, as does the taste. Use a light hand. A single large clove is all you need—the garlic is raw here and retains all of its bite. Many recipes call for two or three cloves, and one I saw even advocates five or six. I can just picture that postprandial stroll, birds dropping from the sky, entire gardens wilting. Stick with one clove.

To give kale a summer makeover, I added lemon juice and zest to provide some brightness. Pistachio nuts deliver more personality than the traditional pine nuts, I think, and are lighter tasting here than the equally traditional walnuts. Surprisingly, kale’s trademark slightly bitter flavor disappears in this treatment, leaving only a fresh, leafy greenness.

Kale Lemon Pesto with Fettuccine
Serves 3 as a meal, 4 to 6 as a side

This recipe comes together quickly. If you’re reasonably proficient in the kitchen, you can make the pesto in the time it takes to heat water for the pasta and cook it.

2 cups torn kale leaves, tightly packed (about 3 to 5 leaves)
1/2 cup shelled, unsalted pistachio nuts (see Kitchen Notes)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus the zest of 1 lemon
salt and freshly ground black pepper

12 ounces fettuccine (or other ribbon pasta—see Kitchen Notes)

Start a large pot of water to cook the pasta. Cook the pasta according to package directions, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water.

Meanwhile, prepare the pesto. Wash the kale under cold running water, tear into medium-sized pieces, discarding the ribs, and spin dry in a salad spinner (or blot dry with a clean kitchen towel). Place pistachio nuts and garlic clove in the bowl of a food processor. Add kale, olive oil, Parmesan and lemon juice and zest. Season with salt and pepper. Process to a fairly fine consistency, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. But don’t overprocess it—you want the pesto to retain a little texture. If the pasta is too thick, add a tablespoon or two of pasta water.

Drain the cooked pasta and transfer to a large bowl. Add the pesto and toss to coat with wooden spatulas or spoons. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Add more pasta water, a couple of tablespoons at a time, if the pasta seems too dry. Divide among shallow bowls and serve.

Kitchen Notes

Pistachios—roasted or not? Either will work fine. I used roasted because that’s what Trader Joe’s had. Make sure they’re unsalted, though—salted pistachios are really salty and can screw up the balance of flavors. You can also use the more traditional pine nuts, but be aware that among some people, they can cause a reaction called pine mouth—an unpleasant bitter or metallic aftertaste that kicks in 12 to 48 hours later and lasts up to two weeks.

Pick your pasta. Ribbon pastas such as fettuccine or linguine are ideal for pesto. They offer broad, flat surfaces for the pesto to cling to. Rotini or fusilli would be good short pasta shapes for the same reason. Spaghetti also works well. I would avoid vermicelli or capellini, though. Their fineness makes them too fragile for the extensive tossing and mixing required.

Looking for more pesto? Try this classic basil pecan pesto with pasta, this cilantro-parsley pesto served with tomatoes, feta and pasta—or even this green bean and potato salad with arugula pesto.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Beth July 3, 2013 at 3:19 am

These flavors sound delicious together! Do you think cooked and cooled kale could be used?

Terry B July 3, 2013 at 4:01 am

Beth, I think that would actually make the pesto a little mushy. One recipe I saw advocated blanching the kale in boiling water for 30 seconds, then plunging it in iced water. But honestly, you don’t need to. I think it tastes fresher without cooking or blanching it.

altadenahiker July 3, 2013 at 5:20 am

Oh, pasta recipe, thank you. In this heat I only have an appetite for pasta, salad, or sushi.

kitchenriffs July 3, 2013 at 10:09 am

You’re right that kale is so trendy — people are going to be jumping all over this recipe! It’s really inspired — I haven’t thought to use kale in pesto, but it’s perfect (I’ve used spinach, and I’ll bet the kale is better). I’m guilty of often using 2 cloves of garlic. What can I say? That I’ve never gotten over my childhood fear of vampires? 😉 Actually, some of my wife’s ancestors came from Transylvania, so one can never be too careful! Really excellent recipe and one I know I’ll use. Really also like the idea of the pistachios as a pine nuts substitute. Really good — thanks.

Terry B July 3, 2013 at 11:20 am

Stay cool, Altadenahiker. It sounds like California is having a typical Midwest summer right now.

Kitchenriffs, I would install a full length mirror in the front hall, just to check for reflections when your wife’s relatives stop by.

Ashley July 3, 2013 at 11:59 am

Pesto with no basil – interesting! I love kale and this looks like a really unique and simple way to add it to pasta. And I love garlic and lemon so I’ll be adding a little extra of both :)

Thanks for this!

jasmine black July 8, 2013 at 5:13 am

Kale is the new black huh? Interesting. It may be something to look into, i’m not sure of which restaurants are doing kale here in richmond, but I will be on the lookout. Thanks for the heads up.

Cams July 9, 2013 at 10:31 pm

I haven’t tried fusilli with pesto before, but I have been looking for a use for it. I think I will try this, it looks delicious first of all and I am not a huge fan of kale normally but I think this could work for incorporate Kale as another leafy green veggie for my diet. I hope this doesn’t sound dumb, but why unsalted pistacio nuts. Would lightly salted throw off the balance too much?

Terry B July 9, 2013 at 11:08 pm

Ashley, I hope you enjoy it!

Jasmine, if your local restaurants aren’t keeping current, just Google kale recipes. You’ll find plenty of inspiration.

Cams—salted pistachios, as delicious as they are, are real salt bombs. If you can find unsalted (Trader Joe’s has them), I recommend them.

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