There’s such a premium on creative output these days, with an atmosphere of obsession over the new, the better, and the surprising. Sometimes, after all the pushing to come up with ideas, I stop being able to think of any more, and sometimes, when it comes to dinner, that means the usual.
Yet there’s a funny thing about “the usual.” When it comes to rice and beans, to stir fry, and to pasta, there’s an incentive not to be creative. So many of the classics work as they are, and the combination of centuries of other people’s creativity negates the need for my additions. Such dinners have the right balance of flavors, the ideal combinations of ingredients, or the perfect mix of starchy to fresh, sweet to sour, or rich to tangy. And that’s why we call these meals comfort food.
Pasta lands in comfort food realm, but not only because it is comforting. Pasta also calls for creativity, but in tiny, doable doses. I do make some tweaks to my pasta, whether I’m adding chickpeas to my puttanesca or salmon and avocado to my sugo al crudo. And the change I make most often?
Opting for more vegetables. As long as I’m choosing comfort food, I might as well make it work. Whatever you believe about pasta, you’ll have to admit it is a top conveyor of vegetables. I noticed I had been choosing broccoli rabe everywhere, and that I was most often adding the beautiful, bitter stalks to my daily pesto. By the time we’d eaten this five or six times, I figured I had to share.
You’ve probably made pesto before, and you’ve probably tossed that pesto with pasta. This recipe isn’t terribly different from what you’ve eaten in the past (though don’t miss the addition of lemon zest, which perks everything up), but the not-so-creative combination of sturdy whole wheat strands, earthy pesto, and crunchy rabe makes an incredible dinner, every time.
Whole Wheat Pesto Pasta with Broccoli Rabe
I like to conserve my pine nuts, which is why I use half almonds. But you can use all of one or the other. Similarly, I sometimes like to dilute the basil flavor in my pesto, which is why I suggest going halvsies with spinach or arugula–though you’ll find a different taste flavor depending on what you choose. Finally, young broccoli rabe is not very bitter, which means you can likely skip the blanching and simply add the stalks to the pan with the onion. Toast the nuts in a dry pan, or in the oven, until fragrant and golden.
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
2 tablespoons sliced almonds (or use all pine nuts), toasted
1 cup packed basil leaves
1 cup packed fresh spinach or arugula (or use 2 cups basil)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1 bunch broccoli rabe, washed and trimmed
1 medium onion, sliced
2/3 pound whole wheat spaghetti (about 10 ounces if you’re measuring)
Bring a large pot of water to boil.
Place the garlic and a pinch of salt in a mini food processor. Pulse to pulverize, then add the pine nuts, almonds, basil, and spinach. Zest the lemon and add that too. Drizzle in about 1/4 cup of oil, enough to make a very smooth paste. Add the Parmesan, mix again, then taste for salt, adding more as needed. Set the pesto aside.
When the water boils, add a big pinch of salt and the broccoli rabe. Cook for two minutes, then use a slotted spoon to lift the rabe into a strainer. Set it aside. Now add a bunch more salt to the water, as well as the pasta. Cook the pasta according to package directions, until 1 minute shy of al dente. Reserve 1 cup of cooking water and drain.
Set a skillet large enough to hold all the pasta over medium-high heat and add enough oil to film the bottom completely. Add the sliced onion and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until soft, then add the blanched broccoli rabe and cook another 4 to 6 minutes. Add the pasta and the pesto to the skillet and stir to mix, pouring in the reserved cooking water a tablespoon or two at a time, until the pesto really coats the pasta, 1 to 2 minutes. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice over everything, then stir again, and add more salt if needed. Serve, garnished with extra parm.
Photos by Carly Diaz