No basil? No problem! Creamy Spinach Pesto makes for a beautiful pasta recipe all year long. Fresh baby spinach, toasted walnuts, and creamy ricotta cheese come together in just 15 minutes to create a healthy homemade pesto that works as a sauce or dip.
While there are certain things I can get snobbish about when it comes to my personal culinary history and heritage, I cannot abide gatekeeping. Especially when those gates keep you from something delicious. (If one more “pit master” tells me I “can’t” make “real” pulled pork in an Instant Pot, I swear to god…)
So in defiance of my Italian ancestors (though, to be fair, I’m pretty sure none were from Genoa, so they may not care), I submit this creamy spinach pesto for your consideration.
Technically, traditional genovese pesto is made from basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and parmesan. And technically, it’s absolutely delicious. What’s not to like out of any of those ingredients? What’s not to love when you mash them all together? I know people who will take pesto over red sauce in their pasta dishes any day of the week.
That being said, if you break that list down to basics, really what you’ve got is a leafy green, a nut, an allium, an oil, and a cheese. I don’t know about you, but I can rattle off at least a dozen variations in each of those categories. And that doesn’t even factor in if you consider those leafy greens as vegetables or herbs; or garlic as an ingredient or a seasoning. The possibilities are endless!
So go nuts! (Pun absolutely intended.) I sure did. This rich spinach pesto (with not one, but two cheeses – ya welcome) barely scratches the surface. Try tarragon pesto for a peppery kick in summer. Pick parsley pesto for an earthier sauce. Can you use carrot tops? Yes, you can. Got picky kids? Broccoli pesto might be in order too!
You can’t keep your gate and eat it too. Though maybe if you smothered it in pesto…
Making a Great Spinach Pesto
Look. I love spinach, you love spinach. We all love spinach. But spinach is not the most flavor-forward leafy green at the market. (How it ever got a bad rap as being a particularly distasteful vegetable is beyond me.) This is why it works great as a “hidden veggie” in smoothies and pasta sauces. It’s also why plain, steamed spinach isn’t a thing. (And if it was in your house, well, that might explain the bad rap.)
To really make spinach shine, you need to enhance it with complementary flavors like garlic and olive oil. But too much of any strong flavor can overpower it.
Enter ricotta cheese. It’s lusciously creamy and subtly sweet. It’s also fatty, so it does a great job of replacing some of the olive oil.
Ricotta helps the pesto come together with less oil, and at the same time allows the essence of the spinach to shine through. It won’t be center stage – like every great pesto recipe, a balance between herbs/greens, nuts, acid, and fats are needed – but the force is still strong, if you catch my drift. Plus, it’s a great excuse to enjoy a new variation of a creamy pesto sauce, so we’re just racking up the wins here.
Spinach Pesto Ingredients
- Spinach: fresh baby spinach is sweet and tender, and easily blends into a sauce without cooking.
- Walnuts: toast first for rich, buttery flavor.
- Ricotta Cheese: full-fat ricotta cheese will yield richer pesto
- Grated Parmesan Cheese: use finely grated cheese, not shredded (and not cheese in a can). Grate your own cheese using a microplane, or buy good quality pre-grated cheese (we like the BelGioioso brand).
- Lemon Juice: squeeze half a lemon for fresh juice.
- Garlic: no need to mince, but do smash whole cloves before blending.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil: use good quality extra virgin oil, not regular, for rich flavor; we like California Olive Ranch.
- Salt and Pepper: season to taste; serving with pasta, be sure to season the cooking water thoroughly (it should be as salty as the sea!).
- Cooked Pasta: we like a short, ridged pasta (think penne or rigatoni) for maximum pesto coverage; the ridges make it easy for the sauce to cling.
How to Make Spinach Pesto
Creamy spinach pesto with tangy ricotta cheese is a shockingly simple and super satisfying way to upgrade your pasta. Creamy spinach pesto with walnuts takes just minutes to make in your blender or food processor. Plus, it doubles as an amazing dipping sauce for roasted vegetables and charred meats.
- Arrange the walnuts on a baking sheet, then transfer to a 350°F oven. Toast 10-12 minutes, tossing once halfway through, until golden brown and very fragrant.
- Combine all ingredients except olive oil in a blender or food processor. Pulse until the ingredients are finely diced.
- Slowly add the olive oil through the feed tube with the motor running until the pesto comes together.
- Taste for seasoning and adjust salt, pepper, and/or lemon juice until the flavor is well-balanced.
- Toss with cooked pasta and serve right away.
- Fresh baby spinach works best. It’s delicate and will blend well into a fine pesto sauce.
- Take a few minutes to toast the walnuts. Raw walnuts are slightly bitter, and very bland. Toasted walnuts are rich, buttery, and extremely flavorful. Toasted walnuts will only improve your pesto!
- Ricotta cheese rounds out the flavor and is a simple way to add depth to pesto sauce. Use full-fat ricotta for best flavor. Use homemade ricotta cheese for even richer flavor!
- Add less olive oil for a chunkier consistency, and more for a smoother version.
Using Spinach Pesto
Because this is a creamy, rich pesto sauce, I wouldn’t immediately jump to “use it wherever you’d use regular pesto” – it’s simply not going to suit every pairing as naturally.
- Pasta is a natural pairing, and I like to toss in some roasted vegetables as well, like cauliflower and broccoli, for a complete meal. Swap it for basil pesto in this pesto pasta with chicken meatballs.
- Similar in consistency to romesco, it’s hearty enough to act like a dipping sauce! Try it with roasted vegetables, charred meats like grilled flank steak, or crispy potatoes. Avoid pairing with fish or shellfish (they’re better suited to a more delicate sauce like chimichurri).
- It’s also very good as a schmear. Try it with eggs and toast (similar to ricotta toast, but instead smeared with pesto and topped with a runny egg).
Creamy Pesto Pasta Pairings
Pasta is our favorite way to serve spinach walnut pesto sauce. Toss with your favorite short, ridged pasta like rigatoni or penne – more surface area from those nooks and crannies means more flavor!
Did you make this spinach pesto recipe? I’d love to know how it turned out! Leave a comment and a rating below.
Creamy 15-Minute Spinach PestoPrint Recipe Rate this Recipe Pin Recipe
- Heat the oven to 350°F.
- Arrange the walnuts on a baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and roast for 12 minutes, shaking then rotating the pan once halfway through.
- With the motor running, slowly add the olive oil through the feed tube until the pesto comes together. Add less for a chunkier consistency, more for a smoother version.
- Taste for seasoning and adjust the salt, pepper, and/or lemon juice until the flavor sings. Makes about 1 heaping cup.
- Toss with cooked pasta and serve right away.