Watercress Pesto Pasta
Italy was a world in and of itself. I had visited Rome and Venice once in seventh grade, but this trip–taken nearly 14 years later–was something special. After a one-day layover from Ireland to England, I hopped on a plane that would take me to the final part of my Europe trip in the south of Italy. Bari, where the airport is located, is about an hour north of Putignano, a quiet town with a population of about 28,000 and home to Italy’s oldest annual Carnival. My friend Alessio picked me up from the airport and we took a tour of Bari (complete, of course, with my first taste of authentic Italian gelato) before heading south to the large countryside home where we would be staying for the week.
As a girl who can barely afford 500 square feet of living space in cramped Los Angeles, the idea of living in a second home in the country three months out of the year was completely unfathomable to me. When we rumbled up the narrow dirt lane that led to Alessio’s house that evening and his family came out onto the beautiful stone-laid patio to greet us, however, I could feel blissful imagination meld into a reality more romantic than anything that I could have dreamed up on my own. The country home was a converted ranch with a rustic outdoor seating area, several well-tended gardens bordering the patio, and rolling fields of grass that stretched to the outer edges of the property. Dinner was ready, so I moved my luggage into the guest apartment at the far end of the house and joined the family for the first of many amazing, regional, homecooked Italian meals to come.
Fresco is the Italian word for “fresh,” and it embodies my experience in Italy in so many ways. Every day we would sample fresh cheeses from the local cheese store or even the family’s neighbors; every day Alessio’s parents would go shopping for fresh ingredients, just enough for that day’s lunch and dinner. For someone who barely makes it out to the grocery store once a week (with the exception of emergency cookie butter runs at Trader Joe’s), it was, well, refreshing and exhilarating to experience the world of taste in such vivid technicolor for the first time. That first night, we enjoyed pasta with a olive oil and cheese drizzle that accentuated the freshness of the handmade noodles, followed by eggplant parmigiana and a bowlful of figs picked in my friend’s backyard.
(Note NEVER invite me over to eat your homegrown figs. As quickly became apparent, I will eat them all.)
(Note if you ever plan to visit Italy, never ever ever go without doing stomach expansion exercises well in advance. Every night I expected the food to stop coming after the first course, and every time my bursting belly roared in conflicted ecstasy when it saw courses two through five approaching.)
Those colorful homecooked meals became the inspiration behind this watercress pesto pasta, which I tasted (in admittedly a much more authentic form) on my fourth day in Italy. Finding that I was flat broke after my travels, however, and realizing that basil (the usual green used in Italian pestos) costs more than a buck for a few leaves in American stores, I decided to turn to a watercress recipe instead. (You can certainly substitute basil if your wallet isn’t crying, and using a mortar and pesto are definitely the way to go if you have them!) Phenomenal. This recipe is so forgiving–lemon to taste, salt and pepper to taste, even parmesan to taste if you want–and I couldn’t stop watering it with my tears of joy the week after I came home from Europe and was suffering from Italy food withdrawals. If you love the taste of Italy, you will want to try this pasta!
Watercress Pesto Pasta
- 2 cups rotini or other ridged pasta
- 2 bunches watercress (about 85 grams), separated from stems
- 1 garlic clove, chopped
- 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup flaked almonds
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 10-12 cherry tomatoes, chopped
- Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package instructions until al dente. Drain and set aside.
- Place the de-stemmed watercress and garlic in a food processor and blend until everything is finely chopped. Add parmesan, almonds, oil, and lemon juice. Continue blending until puree is mostly smooth, with a bit of chunkiness if desired. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Pour pesto over drained pasta, using a bit of water to loosen the sauce if needed. Add chopped tomatoes and serve fresh!