×

Pesto penne with a presidential pedigree

  • Pesto Penne With Chickpeas. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post. Stacy Zarin Goldberg—For The Washington Post

  • Pesto Penne with Chickpeas. Stacy Zarin Goldberg / For the Washington Post



Washington Post
Tuesday, May 15, 2018

‘I’m not a health nut or a great chef,” claims the man who cooked for the previous administration’s first family and performed a pantry makeover at Michelle Obama’s request. “I’m a good cook.” He is former White House senior adviser for nutrition policy Sam Kass, and we’ve taken enough of a spin through his new cookbook, Eat a Little Better, to endorse it in a spirit of true nonpartisanship.

This dish, and its provenance, caught our attention in particular. Called POTUS’s Lucky Pasta, it was devised by Kass on the fly before the second of three debates – tossed together on Air Force One, in fact. It put Barack Obama in such good spirits that it might have been responsible for changing the momentum of the 2012 presidential election. Kass made it for him again, and even on Election Day; hence, the name. To keep things apolitical, we’re going with a straight-up descriptive title instead.

Pecans lend a sweetness to the pesto, and spinach amps up the green power. (He uses fresh spinach; we have frozen spinach that defrosts in no time.) Kass added cooked chicken breast to the mix for his boss, but canned chickpeas are our added protein of choice here, some of which are mashed to add texture that further brings the pasta together.

The recipe makes enough to feed a hungry bunch and send off leftovers for a future lunch. You’ll feel lucky to have it.

Serve with warm garlic bread.

Pesto Penne

8 ounces frozen spinach (bagged, not in a block)

Kosher salt

12 to 16 ounces mini penne or other small dried pasta shape

One 14.5-ounce can no-salt-added chickpeas

One 1.5-ounce chunk Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

2 cloves garlic

2 cups packed fresh basil, plus a few leaves for garnish

¼ cup pecan halves (may substitute pine nuts)

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

Place the spinach in a colander in the sink to defrost and drain while you make the rest of the dish.

Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a generous pinch or two of salt and the pasta; cook according to the package directions (somewhat firm), then strain out the water, reserving 1 cup. Leave the pasta in the pot.

Drain and rinse the chickpeas; smash a few of them, if you would like. Then stir them into the cooked pasta (to warm up). Meanwhile, use a Microplane or box grater to grate the cheese, to yield about ⅓ cup.

Drop the garlic into a food processor with the motor running, so it becomes finely chopped. Stop to add the basil, nuts, half the cheese, half the oil and ½ teaspoon of the salt; pulse to create a coarse puree. With the motor running, gradually add the remaining oil and puree until smooth.

Use your hands to squeeze excess moisture from the spinach and then place the greens in a serving bowl. Add the pesto and pasta-chickpea mixture, then toss to incorporate. Add a splash or two of the reserved pasta cooking water if the mixture seems dry. Taste and season with salt, as needed.