Cheesy Baked Penne with Broccoli and Spinach Pesto 4

We so often blanket pesto as a sauce that’s only fit for the warm, summer months when basil is plentiful and incessant trips to the beach and pool require lighter meals. I find this to be rather sad because basil isn’t the only ingredient out there that can make a killer pesto.

When the last leaf of basil falls off the stem in my backyard and the grocery store deems it appropriate to charge me $5.99 for enough basil to make approximately one tablespoon of pesto, I don’t throw in the towel, instead I look towards other seasonal or year-round ingredients that can also do the job. Some of my favorite winter pesto variations include roasted poblano peppers, jarred sun-dried tomatoes, cilantro or even parsley – all ingredients you can find during spring, summer, fall or winter. Perhaps my favorite variation yet, this roasted broccoli adaption.

Cheesy Baked Penne with Broccoli and Spinach Pesto 2

Just saying the word broccoli gives off a negative connotation, as it’s so often associated with the most-hated vegetable by children and even some stubborn adults. And in some ways I can see where they’re coming from; if I was given plate full of over-cooked mushy broccoli as a child, I’d probably feel the same way. Admittedly, there also may have been a time or two in my childhood and adolescence where I probably wouldn’t have proclaimed broccoli to be something I would willingly consume. Times have a changed for me though; while it’s hard to choose my favorite vegetable (I love them ALL), broccoli is definitely at the top of the list. I like it roasted, steamed, sautéed, thrown in stir-fry, smothered with cheese (duh) and even (gasp!) microwaved with just a touch of butter, salt, pepper and lemon juice.

When we had a rather chilly day a few weekends ago, I knew I wanted some kind of comforting baked pasta, but wasn’t feeling my go-to baked red sauce rigatoni. I wanted something cheesy and relatively hearty, but still decently healthy. I decided I’d take inspiration from the grocery store, and when I walked in and spotted spinach and broccoli on sale for $99 a piece, musings of this pesto immediately started forming in my head.

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The broccoli is roasted with just a touch of olive oil, salt and pepper and then thrown in the food processor along with some baby spinach leaves, parmesan cheese, toasted hazelnuts, garlic and salt. It’s pulsed until the mixture is pureed and then a little bit of chicken stock followed by light olive oil is drizzled in until the mixture becomes cohesive.

It’s then tossed with hot whole-wheat pasta, fresh chunks of mozzarella cheese (I like to buy the BelGioioso snacking cheese, as it’s already portioned out) and starchy cooking water to loosen the sauce up. The whole thing is throw into an oven-safe dish, sprinkled with fresh parmesan cheese and baked until bubbly and hot.

We gorged on this on a Sunday night, but it’s easily something that can be prepared on a hectic weeknight – the pesto can even be prepared a few days in advance and thrown together at the last minute. Add a salad, some crust bread and dinner is done.

Cheesy Baked Penne with Broccoli and Spinach Pesto

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Cheesy Whole-Wheat Baked Penne with Broccoli Pesto
 
This hearty pasta is healthy, but SO delicious and cheesy! The perfect weeknight or weekend dinner.
Author:
Serves: Serves 4
Ingredients
  • 3 ½ cups broccoli florets
  • 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 1 ½ cup packed baby spinach leaves
  • 1 garlic clove
  • ¼ cup hazelnuts, chopped
  • ¾ cup shredded parmesan or pecorino romano cheese, divided
  • ¼ cup chicken stock
  • 6 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 16 ounces whole-wheat pasta
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. On a baking sheet toss broccoli, 2 teaspoons of olive oil and ½ teaspoon of salt together. Roast broccoli for 10-15 minutes or until cooked.
  3. In the meantime cook pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water until just shy of aldente. Reserve cooking liquid.
  4. Once the broccoli is done roasting, let cool for a few minutes.
  5. In the bottom of a food processor, add broccoli, spinach, remaining salt, garlic, hazelnuts and ½ cup of cheese. Pulse until it becomes a paste.
  6. With the mixer on, slowly add in chicken stock, followed by olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  7. Add the pesto to the hot noodles. Toss until combined. Add enough pasta water to loosen the sauce up. Add in mozzarella cheese and ¼ cup parmesan. Season pasta with salt and pepper as necessary.
  8. Transfer to an oven-safe dish or pan and sprinkle with remaining cheese.
  9. Bake until hot and bubbly, about 30 minutes.

Cheesy Whole-Wheat Penne with Broccoli Pesto