For an unexpected twist on your pasta rotation, try this Cilantro Pesto Pasta with Zucchini. The mouthwatering flavors of Cilantro (Coriander), roasted pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds), grilled corn and Mexican Cotija cheese shine in this very crave worthy pasta dish. The squash & corn compliment the flavors of the creamy cilantro pesto in this dish perfectly. This is a near perfect Meatless Monday recipe, perfect for your dinner rotation.
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About this recipe
This recipe was a clipping that I saved several years ago from Sunset Magazine. I finally got to try it and I made some adjustments and it’s fabulous as published as well as with my tweaks. One of my favorite things about this Cilantro Pesto Pasta with Zucchini is that it combines easy to find ingredients and the results are really restaurant worthy. So far one of my favorite zucchini squash recipes to date! Since this is a meatless recipe, it’s also versatile enough that you can serve it with baked or grilled chicken, steak or seafood. We enjoy it as a main course as its super filling on its own. Also, it is amazing at room temperature making this a potluck winner.
The versatility of Pesto
Pesto is such a hero ingredient. A simple, yet flavor amplifying mix of easy ingredients for an ultimate upgrade to pasta and other foods. I use Pesto a lot in my kitchen. Some of our favorite recipes at home are my Grilled Vegetable Sandwich with Asiago and Pesto, Roasted Asparagus Tomato Pesto Melt or my latest Summer favorite, Pesto Parmesan Chicken Burgers. You can see, Pesto doesn’t only compliment pasta, but a full array of recipes.
Besides conventional Basil Pesto, the combinations are truly endless. I recently created a Kale and Pistachio Pesto that is dynamite. So many greens, herbs, cheeses, nuts and seeds work so well for pesto. And outside of that, other ingredients pair well like sun dried tomatoes & garlic or artichokes & lemon that create delicious pesto type sauces.
Cilantro pesto without nuts
Traditional pestos commonly contain nuts. Either pine nuts or walnuts work exceptionally well but seeds, like roasted pumpkin seeds or pepitas, are incredible in this dish and a game changer . Also helpful if you are allergic to specific nuts, seeds are a great substitute.
Difference between traditional basil pesto and cilantro pesto
For those new to making Pesto, I want to point out the differences between the most popular of pesto recipes which is Basil Pesto. It is said, that this Northern Italian creation, dates back to the 16th century. It consists of crushed Basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts. parmesan cheese and olive oil. If you opt to make it traditionally, it would be crushed in a mortar and pestle rather than the modern way which is a blender or food processor. I do think that the slow process of crushing the ingredients has a different flavor profile and a better one at that. That would be a perfect weekend dinner project, but for most of us, our days are busy so food processors and blenders are a perfect stand in.
For this Mexican inspired flavor profile, Cilantro leaves (also known as Coriander) are combined with roasted, salted pepitas, (pumpkin seeds), and Cotija cheese, which is a sharp cheese with the consistency of Feta, elevate the flavor. Cooked sweet corn tempers the sharp bite of the cheese and the bright pop of lime, lime zest and chile flakes work so well in this combination.
How to make Cilantro Pesto Pasta with Zucchini
We are starting by prepping the Cilantro Pesto. You will need a blender, food processor or bullet type blender for the pesto.
Rinse well and dry about 3 bunches of cilantro. You need 3 cups of packed leaves and tender stems divided: 2 1/2 cups for the pesto and 1/2 cup to finish the dish. Set aside.
In the blender or food processor bowl, add olive oil, ground cumin, paprika, lime zest, garlic cloves, salt and 3/4 cup pepitas. Pulse until smooth. Now add cilantro leaves and pulse for about 10-15 seconds. Stir in lime juice, red chile flakes and 1 cup of Cotija cheese. Set aside.
I love to use fresh, grilled corn in this recipe, but frozen, cooked corn works perfectly. Just ensure it’s completely drained and cooked to package directions and set aside 1 1/2 cups.
I used fusilli pasta so the sauce gets into all the nooks and crannies of the macaroni. Any grooved pasta like rotini, gemelli (as suggested in original recipe), campanelle and cavatappi. All of these types of pasta catch extra sauce with every bite.
The original recipe starts with 12oz of dried pasta, which are proper servings for 4, however, most of us don’t like to have 4oz of left over dry pasta. The recipe card reflects a full box of pasta and adjusted ingredients. The recipe will yield 6 generous 2 cup servings or 12 first course servings that are about 1 cup per person.
Start with a large pot of water, add two good pinches of kosher salt and bring to a boil. Add pasta and at the 8 minute mark when pasta is starting to tenderize, add the sliced zucchini to the cooking pasta. Most pasta shaped like fusilli take about 11 minutes to cook. When pasta is cooked, squash should be fork tender.
Save 1 cup of pasta water and drain remainder of pasta and zucchini. Do not rinse. Place pasta and squash back in pot and add pesto and corn. Toss gently and add 1/4 cup of pasta water at a time until you reach desired consistency. Top with extra cotija cheese, pepitas and garnish with cilantro leaves. Squeeze lime onto the dish upon serving.
Serve warm and enjoy!
How to serve
This Cilantro Pesto Pasta with Zucchini is brilliant on it’s own as a main dish but it’s versatile enough that you can serve with roasted chicken, steak or shrimp as a side dish. Serve hot or a room temperature.
This pasta can be refrigerated for up to 3 days and reheats perfectly. To reheat, use a nonstick pan and add a tablespoon of water to reconstitute the Cilantro Pesto. Heat thoroughly before serving.
Cilantro Pesto Pasta with ZucchiniAugust 28, 2022
- food processor or blender
- microplane for zest
- pot for pasta
- large serving bowl
- 1 lb Fusilli or other pasta with grooves
- 3 medium zucchini squash halved lengthwise, sliced 1/4" thick
- 1 cup olive oil extra virgin
- 1 1/2 tsp cumin ground
- 2 tsp paprika ground
- 1 1/2 tsp lime zest
- 4 whole garlic cloves
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 cup roasted and salted pepitas, divided 3/4 cup for pesto, 1/4 cup for serving
- 3 cups cilantro leaves and tender stems, packed, divided 2 1/2 cups for recipe and 1/2 for serving
- 4 tbsp lime juice fresh
- 1 tsp crushed red chile flakes
- 1 1/4 cups Mexican Cotija cheese, crumbled, divided 1 cup for pesto and 1/2 cup for serving
- 1 1/2 cups corn, cooked frozen (drained) or fresh off cob
- 1-2 whole lime cut into wedges for serving
- Rinse and dry 3 bunches of cilantro. Remove leaves and tender stems.
- You need 3 cups of packed leaves and tender stems divided: 2 1/2 cups for the pesto and 1/2 cup to finish the dish. Set aside.
- In the blender or food processor bowl, add olive oil, ground cumin, paprika, lime zest, garlic cloves, salt and 3/4 cup roasted pumpkin seeds/pepitas. Pulse until smooth.
- Now add 2 1/2 cups of cilantro leaves and pulse for about 10-15 seconds. Stir in lime juice, red chile flakes and 1 cup of cotija cheese. Set aside.
- Cook frozen corn to package directions and drain. Or used cooked corn on the cob, kernels removed from cob. (About 2) Set aside.
- Start with a large pot of water, add two good pinches of kosher salt and bring to a boil.
- Add pasta and at the 8 minute mark when pasta is starting to tenderize, add the sliced zucchini to the cooking pasta.
- Most pasta shaped like rotini take about 11 minutes to cook. When pasta is finished cooking, squash should be fork tender.
- Save 1 cup of pasta water and drain remainder of pasta and zucchini. Do not rinse.
- Place back in pot. Add pesto and cooked corn.
- Toss gently and add 1/4 cup of pasta water at a time until desired consistency is reached.
- Place pasta in a serving bowl.
- Top with 1/4 cup of extra cotija cheese, 1/4 cup of pumpkin seeds/pepitas and garnish with remaining cilantro leaves. Squeeze lime onto the dish upon serving.
Nutritional information is calculated online and should be used as a guide.
All content and photographs ©Claudia’s Table and claudiastable.com