Twirly noodles tossed in a five-minute kale pesto, tender chicken meatballs, and plenty of nutty parmesan are the makings of our new favorite throw-it-together weeknight meal – Kale Pesto Pasta. Just because it’s winter, doesn’t mean we have to leave homemade pesto behind. Swapping out hearty wintery kale for a portion of the pesto brings a healthier aspect to our pesto and using crunchy pistachios instead of pine nuts make this easy meal super special.
Kale Pesto Pasta
Instead of migrating on down to the Caribbean, let’s usher a little brightness in to our life in the form of food. Pasta to be exact. Always pasta. Even though winter brings on cozy comforts such as spaghetti and meatballs and cheesy chicken spaghetti (which I love and adore) to really bring the sunshine in I’m going to toss thick chewy pappardelle noodles in a zippy kale pesto peppered with hints of lemon, parmesan, and almonds. We are going to nestle pre-made chicken meatballs (Because why make things harder when we don’t have to?) into the little crevices of the pasta, sprinkle it with parmesan cheese and settle in for a serious pick-me-up.
I love that pesto isn’t limited to a standard ingredient list of just basil, pine nuts, and parmesan. We can swap in other greens. Kale and Broccoli are great options. We can use different nuts. Walnuts, pecans, and almonds are some of my favorites to use.We can use asiago or pecorino or aged gouda.
Like many recipes out there, pesto is only limited to your creativity or what you’ve got on hand. And while I’m a fan of ALL pesto, I think kale pesto is at the very top of the list. It still has all the zippy cheesy characteristics of classic basil pesto, but now it has health benefits too.
Other redeeming qualities of our Kale Pesto Pasta?
- Everything is cooked in one pot. (Except for the non-cooking portion which is whipping the pesto up in the blender.)
- You can easily double the kale pesto to serve with scrambled eggs, grilled chicken or really anything else. (You’ll definitely want to do this.)
- Stat to finish it takes 35 minutes to make.
Ingredients in Kale Pesto Pasta
- Kale. Any type of kale works here, but I prefer to buy kale prepped, washed and ready to go. Make sure to take any tough stems off that may have been left behind.
- Basil. While our pesto is indeed a kale pesto, I still like to include hints of basil. If you can’t find basil on hand, simply swap it out for extra kale.
- Garlic. Pesto is not pesto without a little bit of garlic. That raw punch of garlic is one of flavors I love so much about pesto, so I use a large clove.
- Parmesan. The only thing I’d suggest when purchasing parmesan in this particular recipe is to steer clear of anything pre-shredded. Buy a block, shred it yourself.
- Lemon. We use both the lemon juice and the lemon zest in our kale pesto pasta. One large lemon should do the trick.
- Nuts. Classic basil pesto is made with pine nuts, but again, we shouldn’t be limited to just that. Today we use pistachios, but almonds or walnuts would also be great additions.
Pasta. Unlike may sauces out there that pair better with certain shapes of pasta, pesto tends to be compatible with everything. Which means, the pasta choice is up to you. I’m partial to an egg pappardelle, but spaghetti, linguine, penne – all of it work great.
Protein. Our Kale Pesto Pasta is all about lightness and brightness, so when it comes to the protein I want to stick with the theme. Chicken meatballs are one of my favorite substitutes to higher-in-calorie beef meatballs, so that’s what I often use. I’ll make my own frequently, but when I want a shortcut I look to Jones Dairy Antibiotic Free Chicken Meatballs. These guys are all natural so there’s no additives, just simple ingredients and great flavor – you can find them at your local Costco!
Pasta water. Like many of our pastas, to loosen the sauce up we use a heavy hand of starchy pasta water. The amount you add depends on your personal preference, so if you like a looser sauce, add more.
Let’s make Kale Pesto Pasta
Cook the meatballs. This is a simple pasta, which means, I want to keep the process as simple and streamlined as possible. This means before I cook the pasta, I cook the meatballs in the same pot, then set them aside until they’re ready to be tossed with the pasta.
Cook the pasta. First you’re going to need to boil the water. While this happens, move on to the next step.
Make the pesto. While the water comes to a boil, make the pesto. Basically this means you throw everything into the food processor and let her go. Scrape the sides down and let it go for a minute again. When everything looks lovely and paste-like, turn it on again and drizzle in olive oil. Season to taste. Kale pesto is done.
Cook the pasta. Okay, now that the pasta water is boiling, drop in your pasta of choice. Let it cook until it’s just UNDER aldente. This is important.
Save the water! Save about a cup of the pasta water and then drain the pasta.
Toss. Add the pasta along with the pesto back to the pot. Pour in half cup of water. Toss until it’s coated. Add the meatballs, a little more pasta water and keep tossing until everything is coated and the meatballs are warmed through. If you need to, add more pasta water. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Can I make Kale Pesto Pasta in advance?
Sort of. You can absolutely make the kale pesto in advance. Store in an airtight container for up to three days. Cook as directed.
Substitutions and Tips and Tricks for Recipe Success
- If you can’t find basil, use all kale
- Make sure to remove any hard stems from the kale.
- Be sure to cook your noodles a minute or two shy of aldente as it will continue to cook after you drain.
- Double up on the lemon for a more citrus-forward flavor.
- Pecorino, romano or any hard nutty cheese will work great.
- Be sure to season as you go! Season to taste the pesto, season the pasta water, and then season to taste at the end.
- Zest the lemon first, then juice it. Zesting a lemon after you’ve squeezed all of its juice out is much more difficult.
Other Easy Pasta Recipes We Love
- Our 5-Ingredient Shrimp Alfredo is a hit with, well everyone.
- Another great 5-ingredient is our Butternut Squash Pasta. Packed with sweet butternut squash, a hint of cream, and plenty of parmesan cheese.
- This Pasta Limone is packed with pure lemon flavor and so simple to make.
Kale Pesto Pasta
Twirly noodles tossed in a five-minute kale pesto, tender chicken meatballs, and plenty of nutty parmesan are the makings of our new favorite throw-it-together weeknight meal – Kale Pesto Pasta. Just because it's winter, doesn't mean we have to leave homemade pesto behind. Swapping out hearty wintery kale for a portion of the pesto brings a little seasonal aspect to our pesto and using crunchy almonds instead of pine nuts make this easy meal pocket-friendly as well.
- 3 cups packed kale, stems remove and massaged
- 1 cup basil
- 1/4 cup parmesan cheese (heaping), plus more for garnish
- 2 tsp lemon zest
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 large garlic clove
- 1/4 cup pistachios (you can also use almonds, walnuts or pine nuts)
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt, divided
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 24 chicken meatballs
- 16 oz pappardelle
- 1/2 cup to 1 cup starchy pasta water
Fill a large pot with 1/2 cup water. Add frozen chicken meatballs. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook for 9 minutes. Remove meatballs from the pot and drain water. Set aside.
Fill the same pot with water. Bring to a rolling boil. Season with salt.
While the water comes to a boil, massage the kale. Add the kale, basil, parmesan, lemon juice, garlic, pistachios, and 1/4 teaspoon salt to a food processor. Blend until mostly smooth a few bits of texture. See photo. If needed scrape the sides down witha spatula and blend again.
With the mixer on drizzle in the oil. Scrape the sides downs and blend again until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
When the water comes to a boil, drop the pasta into the water. Cook until just under aldente. When the pasta has cooked, use a liquid measuring cup to take out 1 cup of the pasta water. Set aside. Drain the pasta.
Add the pasta back to the pot along with the pesto, ½ cup of pasta water, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Use tongs to toss the pasta with the pesto. Add the meatballs. Toss again. If needed add more pasta water to loosen the sauce up. (I ended up using all of it.) Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with parmesan cheese.