Spring Hazelnut Pesto Pasta with Shaved Asparagus
Pesto is something of a secret weapon. It’s seriously easy to make, and it drops a vibrant green flavor bomb on whatever you’re serving. Pasta is classic, but this sauce livens up cooked whole grains, beans, and vegetables with ease.
Some version of pesto has been around for millenniums. The ancient Romans called it moretum (as in mortar) and spread it on bread. The word pesto means “to pound” or “to crush” in Italian, as it is traditionally prepared with a mortar and pestle. A quick blitz in a food processor makes this simple sauce even simpler, but if you feel like channeling your inner rustic, then go grab your pestle. People talk about the therapeutic benefits of kneading bread … I think the same can be said about mashing up aromatics in a stone bowl.
A note on the cheese – you don’t need it. Seriously. I would never have believed it if I hadn’t tried it myself, but pesto without cheese tastes almost exactly like pesto with cheese. With the nuttiness of the hazelnuts and the richness of all that olive oil, adding cheese almost seems like overkill.
This meal makes me deeply happy, and I hope it does the same for you. There’s probably some existential satisfaction from knowing I’m eating an ancient dish enjoyed by my ancestors … but I think it’s mostly just that it’s really damn delicious (and wholesome too).
- 4 oz. hazelnuts (3/4 cup)
- 1 bunch asparagus, cleaned but not trimmed*
- 1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- fresh ground pepper
- 2 cups fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
- 2 cups fresh parsley (leaves and tender stems), roughly chopped
- 1 bunch fresh chives, roughly chopped
- 2 cups baby spinach
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3/4 lb. whole grain spaghetti
- In a small skillet over medium heat, toast hazelnuts until deeply browned and fragrant (about 6-8 minutes), stirring often to avoid burning. Set aside to cool.
- Using a vegetable peeler, hold the base of each asparagus spear and peel towards the top to create shavings. Alternately, trim the asparagus and chop into bite-size pieces.**
- Heat a large pot full of salted water on high to boil.
- In a blender or food processor, combine toasted nuts, garlic, salt and pepper and process until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
- Add basil and parsley and process until greens are well chopped.
- Add chives and spinach and process until well chopped.
- With the motor running, slowly pour in the olive oil until well incorporated.
- When the pan of water is boiling, add the dried pasta and cook until al dente, according to the box instructions.
- Stir shaved asparagus in with the noodles for a few seconds, then remove from heat and drain pasta and asparagus, reserving 1 cup cooking water.
- Return drained pasta and asparagus to the pot and stir in the pesto.
- Gradually add pasta water until desired consistency is reached. Serve immediately.
*Because you're peeling these, the larger the asparagus stalks, the better.
**If chopping asparagus instead of peeling, add them to the pasta water 2 minutes before pasta is done for medium to large stalks, or 1 minute for skinny stalks.