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Easy homemade pesto adds flavor to this weeknight pasta dish

Summer spaghetti with walnut pesto. [MICHELLE STARK | Times]
Published Jul. 22

There are few weeknight meals as easy and satisfying as kitchen sink pasta.

As in, everything but the kitchen sink, or whatever you happen to have on hand that would taste good when thrown into a bowl with noodles.

My summertime fridge is usually a mix of the same veggies: squash, zucchini and corn. Sometimes tomatoes. All of those lend themselves well to being zhuzhed up with some garlic and a simple sauce.

When I think of a light pasta dish, I think of pesto as an alternative to something tomatoey or creamy. The essence of pesto is oil, herbs and nuts, a bright mixture that comes together in just a few minutes and, best of all, doesn't require time on the stovetop during these hot summer nights.

Standard pesto recipes call for basil as the herb and pine nuts as the nut, but I like to mix and match. In keeping with the theme, I usually just go with whatever is in my kitchen. This week, it's walnuts and a combination of the out-of-control mint and basil plants growing in my backyard.

You do want to opt for softer herbs like basil and mint, as opposed to more robust ones like rosemary. But even cilantro or parsley would work in smaller quantities for this grab-bag approach.

I usually make my pesto in a food processor but tried something new this week after watching an episode of Netflix's Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. It's the one where chef Samin Nosrat goes to Italy and makes pesto with a little old Italian lady in the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside.

I was inspired by their pesto method, which calls for delicately mashing the ingredients in a large mortar and pestle, working each of them just enough to release their flavors and mix them into a thick, green paste. The nuts were first, then garlic, then salt and basil, the salt helping to break down the herb.

My modest mortar and pestle got the job done, helping to create a thick, bright, fragrant pesto, one ingredient at a time. At one point during all the smooshing (very therapeutic, by the way), I closed my eyes, took a big whiff of basil and tried to imagine I was in Tuscany with them.

I thinned my pesto out with some good olive oil before adding it to the recipe. And I made sure to splurge for a block of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a crucial capper to this dish that's held together by simple yet powerful elements.

Summer Spaghetti With Walnut Pesto

For the pesto:

2 cups fresh basil or mint

2 tablespoons walnuts

2 cloves garlic

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving

For the pasta:

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 small zucchini or yellow summer squash, cut into thin matchsticks

½ cup to 1 cup fresh (or frozen) corn kernels

Kosher salt, to taste

Pepper, to taste

8 ounces spaghetti, bucatini or fettuccine pasta

1 cup halved cherry tomatoes

Make the pesto: Combine basil leaves, walnuts and garlic in a food processor and process until very finely minced.

With the machine running slowly, dribble in the oil and process until the mixture is smooth. Add the cheese and process just until combined. Set aside.

Alternatively, mash ingredients one at a time in a mortar and pestle, stirring in olive oil and cheese at the end and mixing well to combine.

Make the pasta: In a 12-inch skillet, add olive oil and set over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add garlic and cook for just about 1 minute, until fragrant. Add zucchini or yellow summer squash, and corn. Season with the desired amount of salt and black pepper. Saute about 5 minutes just to soften the squash. Remove from the heat but leave in skillet.

Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Season with salt and add pasta. Cook according to package instructions until the pasta is fully cooked.

Strain the pasta but reserve some of the pasta water. Add the cooked pasta to the skillet along with the cherry tomatoes. Toss to combine. Add ¼ cup pasta water and ¼ cup of the pesto and stir well.

Divide pasta among serving dishes and top with a dollop of pesto per serving and plenty of freshly grated cheese.

Serves 2 to 4.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

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