For a variation on pasta with pesto sauce, use kale instead

  • This undated photo provided by America's Test Kitchen in July 2018 shows pasta with kale and sunflower seed pesto in Brookline, Mass. This recipe appears in the cookbook “Cooking At Home With Bridget And Julia.” (Carl Tremblay/America's Test Kitchen via AP)

Although most people think of pesto as an Italian sauce made with herbs (most famously, basil), many ingredients can be ably featured in a pesto. One of note is kale — leafy and deep green, with an earthy, slightly bitter flavor.

Pine nuts are too mild a match for kale, so we opt for more assertively flavored sunflower seeds instead. We also add a handful of basil to the mix to brighten and freshen the earthy pesto.


Toasting the garlic cloves gives them a nutty sweetness. An optional teaspoon of red pepper flakes provides some welcome heat. The hearty kale leaves make a thick pesto, which we thin out by stirring in several tablespoons of pasta cooking water before serving.

Pasta with Kale and Sunflower Seed Pesto

Servings: 4-6

Start to finish: 30 minutes

2 unpeeled garlic cloves

4 ounces kale, stemmed and chopped (2 cups)

1 cup fresh basil leaves

1 1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (¾ cup), plus extra for serving

1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds, toasted

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound fusilli

Toast garlic in 8-inch skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes; transfer to bowl. Let garlic cool slightly, then peel and mince.


Pulse kale, basil, Parmesan, sunflower seeds, pepper flakes, if using, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and garlic in food processor until finely ground, 20 to 30 pulses, scraping down bowl as needed. With processor running, slowly add oil until incorporated. Transfer to medium bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Reserve 3/4 cup cooking water, then drain pasta and return it to pot. Stir several tablespoons of reserved pasta water into pesto to loosen it, then add it to pasta and toss to combine. Adjust consistency with remaining reserved cooking water as needed and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with extra Parmesan.

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