I remember when I first discovered pesto. My great-aunt Kay made it for me when I was about 12 or 13, more than 20 years ago. My family was in Vancouver BC, visiting Kay and other relatives, and she had a big family dinner planned for one of the nights that we were in town. Kay was known for not only being an extraordinary cook, but also for preparing — in true Italian fashion — enough food to feed an army. One of the dishes she made that night was pasta in pesto sauce. I had never even seen pesto before and was a little hesitant to try it. I had no idea its green color came from basil and the idea of a green pasta sauce threw me for a loop.
I should take a quick moment to explain that I am from a small town on an island in Alaska. The produce in our grocery stores was certainly not of the best quality and I honestly can’t remember having seen fresh basil before. So this was definitely a first for me.
Once I took my first bite, I was hooked. It was amazing. I requested it again and again in the following years and my mother would always make some variation of it for me. To this day, one of my favorite combinations of all time is pesto mixed with any kind of pasta and broccoli.
But my love affair took a downward spiral when I discovered how unhealthy pesto actually is. In my teenage naivety I had just assumed that since it was made with basil, it couldn’t be bad for you. Then I realized a large component of pesto is olive oil, followed closely by cheese and pine nuts. Of course. Anything that delicious couldn’t possibly be healthy.
These days I still indulge pesto, just not as often as I’d like too. Then I learned that you can make all different varieties of pesto: you can make it with arugula, spinach, garlic scapes and, right up my alley, broccoli! Which led me to one of my now-favorite pasta sauces: a broccoli-walnut pesto.
While there is still oil, cheese and nuts in this pesto, you can adjust the quantities to your personal preference. But the best thing is you get all the added benefits of having a sauce made from broccoli — which is high in vitamin A, vitamin K and antioxidants. It’s a healthier way to get that familiar pesto flavor and, considering the price of fresh basil, it’s also much less expensive.
Start with broccoli, a lemon, a minced garlic clove and a handful of toasted walnuts. You’ll also need some good quality Parmesan and olive oil. A good blender is always helpful too.
Blanch the broccoli until just tender and shock it in ice water. Drain, pat dry and puree it with about a lemon’s worth of juice, the walnuts and garlic and some grated cheese. Drizzle in the oil until you get a nice pesto-like consistency.
Season with salt and pepper. And if it needs more of one thing, just add it. I don’t really use a recipe because I just throw it together and taste as I go. But if you want to see what this is loosely based on, check out this variation — it will have more precise measurements.
In the above picture you’ll notice I actually threw in a tiny nubbin of regular pesto too (the darker of the two). That’s because I had intended to just use that, but realized I only had a few tablespoons left. Luckily, as usual, I had plenty of broccoli hanging out in my veggie drawer.
As you can also see I added more blanched florets plus some peas and chopped green onions. I like it when all my veggies match!
Mix everything together with the pasta of your choice. I used a linguine. It would also be great with fettucine or some cheese tortellini. Add a touch of red chili flake if you’re feeling frisky, as well as a touch of the used pasta water to help bind things.
Top with more chopped walnuts, a sprinkling of chopped parsley and some Parmesan. Then dig in!
Trust me, this dish will make you happy.