Meat Free Mondays – Presto! Pesto Pasta

There’s no better way to warm up on a cold winter’s night than a steaming bowl of pasta and vegetables. But if you add a little fresh pesto sauce, you can transform this everyday dish into something special.

This low-glycemic recipe will fill you up without slowing you down. Its inexpensive fresh vegetables are available year-round and won’t break the bank. Plus it can be prepared in just a few minutes.

To make basil pesto sauce, simply combine fresh basil leaves, toasted pine nuts, crushed garlic and olive oil in a food processor and blend. This versatile sauce can be used to add flavor to a variety of foods, including pastas, salads and even soups. It will stay fresh in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

During the summer months, basil is cheap and plentiful and making fresh pesto is a breeze. In winter, many grocers carry a pre-made pesto that has all the flavorful goodness of homemade. It’s handy to have around any time of year, but especially in winter when your flavor options are more limited.

The vegetables in this dish are all steamed in the same pot, but for various lengths of time – with the denser carrots taking much longer to steam than the more fragile zucchini.

Presto! Pesto Pasta

1 box whole wheat penne pasta

1 TBS extra virgin olive oil

2 TBS pesto sauce

3-4 carrots, peeled and sliced on the bias

1 cup broccoli florets

2 small zucchini, cut into medallions

¼ cup grated parmesan cheese

1. Cook pasta according to package instructions and drain. Return to pot and toss in olive oil to keep from sticking together.

2. Bring water to boil in stovetop steamer. Add carrots to the perforated insert and steam 5 minutes, then add broccoli and steam another 4 minutes. Finally, add zucchini and steam another 2 minutes.

3.Add vegetables and pesto to pasta pot and toss. To plate, pile pasta and vegetables in center of pasta bowl and garnish with a little parmesan.

Programming Note: It’s the start of a new year, so here at Budget Cooking Blog we are launching a new feature. “Wines on Wednesday” will be spotlighting inexpensive yet extraordinary wines for under $10/bottle to complilment some of the dishes we’ve been cooking. “Wines on Wednesday” also will give tips on how to select the best wines, and how to successful pair wines with food to enhance your dining experience. Look for “Wines on Wednesday” starting this Wednesday on Budget Cooking Blog!



King Basil

Perhaps the plant we’ve had the most luck growing is basil.

Not only does it thrive despite too much or too little rain, not enough sunlight or too many insects, but it fills the garden with a lovely licorice aroma.

Given the best conditions, basil plants grow huge – up to six feet. Ours usually make it to about three. Throughout the summer, as you pick off the leaves to use in salads and sauces, they are replaced tenfold. It’s one of those plants where you definitely will have more than you could ever use or give away.

Right now, we have three basil plants growing. One huge plant in our main garden and
two smaller plants in the Accidental Herb Garden. Even though they weren’t planted until August, they are both doing well.

Basil will let you know if the soil is rich in nutrients or not. If it is, the leaves will be  robust green. If not, they will be a paler yellow green.

We’ve always grown them from baby plants, which are inexpensive in the spring at the
local gardening supply stores, but you also can grow the from seed. You can even start them indoors in the winter, if you make sure they have plenty of water and light.

Basil is an annual, which means it usually doesn’t come back the next year. It is
very sensitive to frost, so the autumn’s first freeze instantly will turn your plants black. Make sure to harvest as much as you can whenever there is a season’s first frost advisory.

Basil can be dried by laying the leaves out on sheet pans or screens in a dark,
well-ventilated place. They also can be frozen or stored in oil.

Perhaps basil is most known for its use in pesto sauce, the sweet and tangy Italian
sauce that can be used as a spread, as a pasta sauce, salad dressing, or anything you want to zing up with spicy flavor.

Whole Wheat Pasta with Pesto, Chicken and Zucchini

Whole Wheat Pasta with Pesto, Chicken and Zucchini

Making pesto is super easy, and it’s a great way to use up all the extra basil you’re going to have at toward the end of the summer.

Put it in jars or used salad dressing containers and it will keep in your refrigerator for weeks. Or homemade pesto made with basil you’ve grown yourself makes a heartfelt gift.

Basil also is a central ingredient in Insalata Caprese. I also like to use it on my
white pizza.

Pesto Sauce

Pesto Sauce

Pesto Sauce

2 cups fresh basil leaves, rinsed

4 cloves garlic, whole

1/3 cup EVOO

½ tsp sea salt

½ tsp fresh ground black pepper

¼ cup grated parmesan

¼ cup pine nuts (optional)

Add all ingredients except the parmesan the food processor and pulse until completely mixed. Fold in parmesan. Note: Traditional pesto includes pine nuts, but they are really expensive. Because this is a budget cooking blog, I made them optional. In my opinion, they add more texture than flavor. Try substituting walnuts, which are way less expensive, or leaving them out altogether.

For an interesting variation, try using roasted garlic instead of raw. It makes a much sweeter pesto. Or fold 1 TBS fresh pesto into 1 cup of mayonnaise to make an outstanding basil aoli that will make your next sandwich truly special.

This delicious variation on traditional pizza uses fresh herbs to make an unbelievably flavorful pie that you will rave about.  

White Pizza

Whole wheat pizza dough, cooked


½ lb fresh mozzarella

7-10 basil leaves, sliced cross-section wise

1 TBS fresh oregano, chopped

1 TBS fresh opal basil, leaves separated but whole

1 cup pulled smoked chicken or pork

1 green pepper, sliced into thin horizontal rings

3-4 slices red onion, rings separated

1 tsp granulated garlic

1 tsp Italian seasoning

½ tsp red pepper flake

My white pizza is the same as my regular pizza, except I just brush the dough with EVOO rather than a red sauce. Assembly is the same. I pile on the fresh herbs and other toppings, covering with discs of fresh cut mozzarella, and seasoned with the dried seasonings before going into a 400F oven for 20 minutes. At the very end, I sprinkle the fresh spicy globe basil leaves. They have an interesting flavor and their micro basil leaves look adorable.

Do you have any recipes that include fresh basil or pesto sauce? Share them in the comments section below.