As a child, I always assumed that traditional pesto contained feta cheese, milk, and a hearty amount of spinach.  However, it wouldn't be until I began culinary school that I learned that my mom's traditional pesto was actually a Peruvian version common in most, if not all, Peruvian restaurants.

In this recipe, I marry both the Italian and Peruvian versions to give a creamy yet hearty sauce. The creaminess comes from the addition of evaporated milk, which has a mouthfeel similar to cream, but not as heavy. Walnuts replace the Italian pine nuts to provide texture as well as healthy omega-3s, and their nuttiness pairs nicely with the pecorino Romano.

As for the feta, it provides the saltiness that completes the whole dish. Feel free to try other cheeses such as goat cheese and queso fresco, a Latin cheese that is similar to feta, but not as prominent. The cherry tomatoes provide a sweet and tart flavor, and their color makes this an eye-catching side dish.  To complete the meal, serve along with grilled chicken or rack of lamb to wow your guests. Enjoy!

Peruvian pesto with penne and roasted tomatoes

Servings: 6
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 cup tightly packed basil leaves
  • 3 cups tightly packed spinach
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tbsp pecorino Romano
  • 1/3 cup feta cheese
  • ¼ cup walnuts
  • ¼ cup canola oil plus 2 tbsp
  • ½ cup low-fat 2% evaporated milk
  • ¾ lb whole wheat penne
  • 2 pints cherry tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp plus 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450°F.
  2. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and toss in 2 tbsp of oil, salt, and pepper. Spread evenly and cook for 15-18 minutes.
  3. Bring a large pot filled ¾ way up with water to a boil. Add 2 tbsp of salt.
  4. In a food processor or blender, add the garlic, basil, spinach, cheese, milk, oil, and walnuts. Pulse or blend until you have a smooth mixture. If needed, you can add more oil, 1 tbsp at a time.
  5. Cook the pasta as instructed on the package and drain.
  6. Add the pesto to the pasta and mix, followed by gently mixing in the roasted cherry tomatoes.

Cuadros, a Drexel University student majoring in nutrition, is interning with the Healthy Weight Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.