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Monday, September 10, 2012

Low-Fat Pesto Cream

I don't think I've talked about my low-fat pesto cream sauces... although I think there have been a few other varieties of low-fat cream sauces.  And some not so low-fat, as well.

Anyway, I like this sauce when I'm craving a rich, hearty pasta, but don't want to spend very long in the kitchen.

In the old days (like 5 years ago) I used to make my own pesto.  It's not hard.  Just mulch some pine nuts with fresh basil, add some olive oil, some garlic, and some parmesan cheese.  The problem isn't the effort, it's the expense.  Compare the cost of even a large jar of pre-made pesto with the cost of even a small package of pine nuts.  I dare you.  

Anyway, after concluding that pine nuts must only grow in the sun-soaked hallowed grounds of a sanctified corner of Shangri-La, and can only be harvested by virgin priestesses every 4th lunar cycle, I decided it's much more feasible to just buy the already assembled pesto.  

Pine nuts are ridiculously expensive.  I've bought from small, local markets, I've bought from large corporate grocers, I've even bought in bulk; but, regardless from where they come, pine nuts are easily 3-4 times more expensive than their equivalent weight in already-prepared pesto.  I guess the pesto manufacturers have a secret stash they don't open up to the public?  Perhaps they have their own indentured work force of virgin priestesses?  Who knows?

So... although sometimes it's fun to make your own, for the most part I buy pesto pre-made these days.

If you're not a fan of Pesto, I just have to ask, why not?  What's your malfunction?  Do you have a problem with awesomeness?  Is it just, in fact, too good, and you feel inadequate?  In any case, pesto is a staple in my kitchen.  You can use it in anything, pretty much, from grilled meats, to steamed vegetables, to simple cooked noodles.  There are many different pesto 'sauces' I make - from tomato basil, to pesto-cream, and even just an olio with nothing else but pesto, and it always creates a robust, intense flavour extravaganza, that never disappoints.

Anyway, this sauce is pretty simple.  It's basically a modified white sauce, with a few spoonfuls of pesto added right before serving.  To make it 'low-fat' I opt for milk rather than cream, and margarine rather than butter, but it is still super delicious.

So, our ingredients are relatively paltry.  We don't want to muddle the flavours here, and we want the pesto to have free reign here.  So, the 'white sauce' will be pretty bland.

A little bit of onion and garlic, with a small scallion for kicks.  :)

Like I mentioned, this is a low-fat sauce, so we're going to start this off with a couple tablespoons of margarine, and a splash of olive oil, on low-heat in a saucepan.

Finely chop each of the ingredients, and then gradually add them to the pot, keeping the mixture on medium-low.

Once the whole thing starts to simmer nicely, 

Add a good amount of milk.  Like two cups.

At this point, the sauce will be very runny, and the oils and milk will remain separate.  In fact, you'll be able to clearly see the margarine and oil layer sitting on top of the milk.

So, we're going to turn the heat up slowly, to about medium (maybe medium-high if you're really diligent and stirring often) and the whole thing will start to blend nicely after about 5 minutes.

At this point, we're going to need to thicken this a little bit.  We are using milk after all.  If we were to make this for judges, we would be using some full-fat cream and the resultant sauce would be naturally rich, creamy and thick.

So, we're going to mix up about a tablespoon or two of corn starch with a small amount of cold milk.

Once fully whisked, and there are no corn starch lumps, dump this mixture into your sauce, stirring all the while.

Bring the heat down to medium if you had it higher, and let this simmer for a minute or three.

Try not to let it boil a whole lot, just lightly bubble.

At this point I decided to add a few dry spices.  A pinch of salt, and pepper, and just a few freshly-ground fennel seeds to complement the pesto.

Stir that in, and test to see if your sauce is done by the 'spoon test'.  I've mentioned this before, but in order to test whether a cream sauce is ready, stick a large spoon into the sauce, keeping the spoon relatively perpendicular to the sauce (i.e. so that you're not 'scooping' up sauce, but rather just 'immersing' the spoon).  When the spoon comes away with a thick coating, you're good to go.

At this point, my noodles (in today's case, some whole-grain 'scoobi-do's' - which the wife likes, but for some reason I've never particularly warmed to) were al dente and drained.

So everything was ready to go, all that remained was to stir in the pesto.

This is really up to individual taste, but I'd recommend (for a sauce of this size) at least three or four large spoonfuls like this.

Stir that in well, and the sauce will turn a beautiful olive colour.

Take it off the heat, and serve over the dry noodles, adding some freshly ground pepper and some freshly-shaved parmigiana reggiano on top.

Extra delicious, super rich and creamy, and not too unhealthy either.  The sodium and fat are definitely on the low end, and the whole-grain noodles add some lovely fibre in addition to their wonderful texture.  And from start to finish only about 25 minutes, this is a quick and delicious pasta that is dead simple to make.