This Decadent Pasta Sauce Is Actually Packed With a Full Serving of Greens
Real talk about salad, for a moment.
There are those among us who really wish we loved salad. People look so happy eating it. Somehow they’re able to enjoy it without immediately needing a cheeseburger afterwards.
Aside from salads so decked out with meat they’re basically charcuterie boards plopped on a single piece of lettuce, I am not Team Salad. It has a little bit to do with finding a worm in mine at the school cafeteria when I was six—imagine the screams!—and a lot to do with having a palate that’s excessively sensitive to bitter notes. I can’t eat dandelion greens, which taste like poison to me. When it comes to dark greens in particular, I tend to fold them into frittatas, add bacon, or coat them with a ton of creamy dressing—all to coat any bitter notes.
That changed recently, much to my relief. (Hey, they are really good for you.) Tejal Rao, an acquaintance who writes for The New York Times, published Chef Joshua McFadden’s kale pasta recipe. She wrote of a bright-green, unctuous sauce spiked with good olive oil, garlic, and Parmesan. These are a few of my favorite things, and my ears perked right up.
It’s a delightful recipe. You can make it in less than half an hour because you use the same salted boiling water for the greens and the pasta, and it’s a way to get four to eight ounces of kale into your system using pasta as a vehicle. Its color is sort of extraordinary—you might want to prep the kids with a little ditty about green eggs and ham before serving them “green mac ‘n cheese”—but I love it. The pasta water, olive oil, and Parmesan mellow the bitterness of greens, softening and rounding their flavor. The sauce is sweet and luxe—like alfredo sauce, minus the cream, but with a full serving of greens spun in.
I’ve been eating this weekly for a couple of months since the story came out, but I’ve recently found myself wondering about other greens. Chef McFadden had told Rao he’d never use other greens, because “it wouldn’t make sense,” but kale’s popularity has spiked over the last few years. I tend to see smaller bunches costing more money at the farmers’ market. And sometimes its brethren look more sprightly. Collards are in season near me, as is Swiss chard, and spinach. How would those guys fare in the same recipe?
So I spent a couple of days coating the entirety of my kitchen in a verdant, saucy mess. Collards, I found, are not so good for this dish. They’re such a stout green that they really aren’t inclined to break down, even in a high-powered blender, which made for a lumpy puree. But chard and spinach, particularly the latter, were a delight. Spinach made for a super-glossy sauce, and taste-wise, it was right on par with the kale. (If you use chard, reserve its stems to chop up for salads or sauté as a topping.) This works nicely even with wilted greens that are a couple of days old.
The key to the recipe is not throwing away that pasta water—it truly is liquid gold—because it’s spiked with starch and salt. And do use the best-quality olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano you can afford. Because the recipe has so few ingredients, you can taste every one. Lastly, tempting though it might be to buy the pre-chopped stuff, it’s probably best to buy whole bunches of kale. You want any knobby ribs eliminated, no matter the greens you use, and places like Trader Joe’s tend not to take the ribs out of their greens, so you’ll do double work snipping each short piece free. I like to fold long leaves of kale in half, then just use pinched fingers to separate them from the rib, in a quick, zipper-like movement.
If you tire of your green-eggs-and-pasta lifestyle, riff on it. Rao emailed Health, “I usually add some chile flakes to the oil with the garlic, and then zest some lemon over the dressed pasta before sprinkling cheese at the end.” I’ve been simmering Aleppo pepper in the olive oil I drizzle over the finished product. One caveat: Because the sauce is an emulsion of sorts, mingling water, oil, and cheese, it doesn’t reheat terribly well in the microwave. But because you’ll power through it pretty much in one go, that probably won’t be an issue.
Kosher salt, to taste
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
2 cloves garlic, smashed flat and peeled
1 lb. lacinato kale (thick ribs removed), fresh spinach (thick ribs removed) or Swiss chard (thick ribs removed and reserved for later use)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ lb. pasta, such as pappardelle, rigatoni, or ziti
¾ cup coarsely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- Put a large pot of generously salted (about 2 Tbsp. of salt) water over high heat, and bring to a boil. In a small skillet over medium heat, add olive oil and garlic, and cook until the garlic begins to sizzle. Reduce heat to low, and cook very gently until garlic is soft and begins to turn light gold, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
- When water is boiling, add kale leaves, and cook until tender, but not mushy, about 5 minutes. (If cooking spinach, bank on about 3 minutes. With chard, about 4 minutes.) Pull out the hot, dripping kale leaves with tongs, and put directly into a blender. (Don’t drain the pot; you’ll use that same boiling water to cook the pasta.) Add garlic and its oil to the blender, along with a splash of hot water from the pot if you need some more liquid to get the blender going. Blend into a fine, thick green purée. Taste, and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, then blend again.
- Add the pasta to the still-boiling water, and cook according to directions on the package. Ladle out about a cup of the water to save for finishing the dish, then drain the pasta and return it to the dry pot. Add the kale purée, about ¾ of the grated cheese and a splash of the reserved pasta water. Toss until all the pasta is well coated and bright green, adding another splash of pasta water if needed so that the sauce is loose and almost creamy in texture. Serve in bowls right away, and top with an extra drizzle of olive oil and the rest of the grated cheese.
Note: This makes a lot of sauce per serving. Serve with bread or use reserved sauce for baked salmon, roast chicken, etc.