“Pesto is not necessarily what you think it is.” This is what food director Carla Lalli Music told me the other day after doing loads of reading about what actually constitutes the classic pasta sauce. There are a lot of things to know about Carla, but one is that she has an encyclopedic library of cookbooks on hand for research.
The purpose of this particular research? To create a recipe for White Pesto, a riff on the classic Genovese version we normally think of when we imagine pesto—but just as delicious, craveable, and simple to make. Could she do it with the same number of ingredients? Using just a knife? What about without the heaping mound of herbs?! Would the internet throw themselves into a frenzy?! Well, folks. She did. And you can’t, because her recipe is delicious, and it’s as much of a pesto as the green sauce we know and love.
The result is an ultra-creamy, walnut-studded sauce that can be made in no time—well, as long as it takes to boil water, pretty much—and all in one bowl.
The creaminess comes from the base of ricotta, which Carla chose because it’s so mild. “You can add a lot of it without it becoming super salty or super funky,” she says. “Plus, it has a high water content, which helps make a sauce that really coats the noodles.” There’s still parm in there to hit that salty note, there’s still raw garlic for that bite, and there’s olive oil, salt, and pepper, because duh. Toasted walnuts fill the need for fatty nuttiness. But the real twist comes from lemon zest. “We tasted the first iteration with no lemon,” says Carla, “but it wasn’t quite dynamic enough. Without tons of herbs, we needed something bright to balance the dish out.” The main difference is in the proportions: Heavy on the cheese and nuts, light on the herbs (though there is a small amount of oregano in there—just enough to lend an earthy bite in the background, but not enough to give off any color). So far so good, right?
It gets better: All you have to do is give those ingredients a couple quick chops and a few grates, and mix it all together in a bowl. See that? That’s your water boiling already. Then, throw in the pasta, cook it to al dente, scoop out a cup of the pasta water, pour that directly into the bowl, add the pasta, and toss it vigorously. “The tossing, tossing, tossing is important,” says Carla. “I mean it when I say a full two minutes.” It will feel like a long time, but you need to commit in order to make the sauce thicken up and cling to each noodle.
And really, what’s two minutes when your dinner just came together in less than thirty?
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