Comforting spaghetti with basil, spinach and cheese sauce
Ever since I can remember, my favorite food in the world was pasta with pesto sauce. At home as a little girl, they would make this dish every year for my birthday, when I was sick, and any time they wanted me to feel special and loved. It was a big surprise when I found out, I don´t remember exactly when, but right around the mid years of childhood, that what I had known as “pesto” and had held so close to my heart and cravings, was not the real deal, but a Peruvian adaptation of the Italian bestseller.
I found myself at that tender age on a culinary crossroad, having to decide whether to be faithful to the flavors that had brought me so much joy, or stick to the name of the dish that had already become a part of my identity. Being a food snob in the making, (and some could say, a traitor), I picked the name. Since then, birthdays and other special events in my life were accompanied by warm dishes of spaghetti al pesto (the original), and my beloved ex favorite dish was banished from our kitchen for many years to come.
In my defense, I did love the real pesto, and my mom makes the best one I’ve tried. But years after re-adapting my taste buds, I started yearning for my old childhood friend. When I moved abroad, amidst supermarket isles full of Italian pasta sauces that came in every color and texture, and where our version of the classic was nowhere to be found, I missed it dearly, and I started feeling a new kind of appreciation for it.
The story behind the dish? Pesto was first brought to Peru by Italian immigrants from Liguria, which is known to be the cradle of this popular sauce and boasts of having the most aromatic basil in the world. Their simple but exquisite gastronomy had a permanent influence on Peruvian cuisine, and the original pesto ligure became the popular tallarines verdes (green noodles), just like the pasta al pomodoro became known as tallarines rojos (red noodles).
Every household and market vendor has its own favorite variation, where the dish is crowned with anything from a fried egg to a piece of steak, or served with French fries on the side. I like to eat them with steamed green beans, like I do with pesto, and use wholegrain rice, or quinoa pasta to keep it healthy. Want to raise the health bar even higher? Try mixing in some steamed or slightly sauteed zucchinis, asparagus, fava beans and peas. I once did a vegan rendition substituting the milk with soy milk, and the cheese with tofu, and it had nothing to envy from the original dish.
- 1 lb spaghetti
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ¼ cup red onion, diced
- 4 cup spinach leaves
- 1 cup basil leaves
- 2 garlic cloves, finely diced
- ¾ cup evaporated milk
- ½ cup white fresh cheese (queso fresco), diced in cubes
- ¼ cup pecans
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 cup cooked green beans
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
- *Cook the pasta in boiling salted water following the package instructions.
- *Meanwhile saute the onion in 1 tablespoon oil, at medium heat and stirring occasionally, until translucent (about 10 minutes).
- *Pour boiling water over the spinach and basil leaves (you can use the same water for the pasta). Strain.
- *In the blender process onion, spinach, basil, garlic, evaporated milk, white cheese, pecans, olive oil, salt and pepper.
- *Drain the pasta and mix with the sauce and the green beans. Serve immediately, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.