This creamy spinach pasta sauce is a wonderful way to get your greens. It’s loaded with basil, parsley, and a few other simple ingredients. The trick? Blanching the spinach before cooking makes for the greenest basil spinach sauce ever.
I craved something green tonight and decided on this gorgeous creamy spinach pasta sauce. This sauce is similar to pesto but richer, thanks to the addition of mascarpone. It’s really simple to make and perfect for a weeknight meal, but you will need a blender or food processor to get the smoothest sauce possible.
Like spinach sauces I’ve made in the past, how you cook the spinach is really important. You must be careful not to cook out all the color (and nutrients!). My recipe for creamy spinach pasta sauce will teach you how to make the lushest sauce that retains all its beautiful color.
This recipe only requires a handful of ingredients, including:
- Pasta: I use tagliatelle, but I will give you a few suggestions below.
- Greens: Spinach, basil, and parsley are the leafy, herby foundation of the sauce.
- Aromatics: Sautéed onion and garlic add a gorgeous aromatic undertone.
- Dairy: Mascarpone and Parmigiano-Reggiano both add just the right amount of richness to the sauce.
- Nuts: Pistachios will add a deeper, savory flavor to the sauce in addition to a little boost of protein. They also work to thicken the sauce further.
- A little extra oomph: Lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil gives the sauce a little bright punchiness. Don’t skip them!
But first, the pasta:
The pasta you choose for this sauce is entirely dependent upon your preferences. In my opinion, the richness of the sauce pairs well with broader pasta shapes, like tagliatelle (above), pappardelle, or fettuccine. Short, tubular pasta like rigatoni or paccheri would both work well to catch all the sauce. Avoid thin or small pasta like spaghetti, angel hair, or orzo. You want a shape that can hold its own against the thick sauce.
Do I need to blanch the spinach before cooking?
Beginner cooks may ask first, “what is blanching?” So let’s talk about that first. Blanching is a cooking process that involves plunging a food–most commonly a vegetable or fruit–into boiling water for a brief time. The time in the water depends upon the food, but it can range from 30 seconds up to 2–3 minutes. After the vegetable has finished in the boiling water, it is immersed in an ice bath which stops the cooking process. There are many benefits to blanching, but the most important benefit is that it prevents the food from overcooking and gives you much more control over the finished product.
In this recipe, I strongly advise blanching the spinach first. 30 seconds in boiling water will cook the spinach to just the right texture for puréing into a silky sauce without losing the color.
How to make creamy basil spinach sauce:
Despite needing a blender or food processor, this recipe is so unbelievably easy to make and delivers big flavor. It’s absolutely delicious and just a few short steps.
- Prepare the spinach: First, rinse the spinach thoroughly. You’ll blanch it in a big pot of water, and–provided you rinse it thoroughly–you can reuse the pot of boiling water for the pasta! Next, bring your big pot of water to a boil. Add the spinach and use a slotted spoon or spider strainer to transfer it to an ice bath. Let it hang out in the ice bath as you get everything else prepped.
- Cook the onions: In a small pot or skillet, sauté onions until completely softened, about 10–12 minutes. Add some crushed garlic (no need to mince!) and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat and set aside. Sautéing the onions and garlic like this will soften the bite they bring when raw.
- Cook the pasta: Whether reusing the spinach water or boiling a fresh pot, cook the pasta until al dente. Use a measuring cup to scoop out 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and set aside.
- Make the sauce:* Before you make the sauce, drain the spinach. Grab all of the spinach with your hands and squeeze out as much excess water as possible. I like to squeeze all of it into a little ball and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze to remove as much water as possible. Place the spinach in the food processor or blender with the fresh basil, parsley, lemon juice, and pistachios and blend until minced. From there, add the cheese and the cooked onion and garlic. Blend until smooth. Finish the sauce by adding some of the cooking water.
- Sauce the pasta: From there, pour the sauce into a big bowl, add the cooked pasta, and toss to coat. Add a little more pasta cooking water as needed.
*Note: You can start the sauce as the pasta boils so your strainer or colander will be freed up from straining the spinach! Just get everything in the food processor and set it aside to wait on standby for the pasta to finish.
That’s it! Because you blanch the spinach before cooking, you’ll have yourself the most gorgeously green bowl of pasta you could ask for.
Creamy Spinach Pasta Sauce
- Large pot
- Small pot
- Sieve or colander
- Food processor or blender
- 5 ounces spinach, rinsed thoroughly
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- ½ cup loosely packed fresh basil, plus a few leaves for garnish
- ½ cup loosely packed fresh parsley
- ¼ cup shelled pistachios, unsalted
- 1 lemon, juiced
- ½ cup marscarpone or ricotta cheese
- ¾ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, divided
- 12 ounces tagliatelle
- 1 cup pasta cooking water
- Salt and pepper to taste
Blanch the spinach:
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, add the spinach and boil it for 30 seconds. Transfer to an ice bath and set aside.
Sauté the onions and garlic:
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small pot over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10–12 minutes until very soft.
- Add the roughly chopped garlic and cook for 1 minute. Season with a pinch of salt and turn off the heat. Set aside.
Cook the pasta:
- To the pot of boiling, salted water, add the pasta and cook until al dente. Scoop out 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and set aside.
Prepare the sauce:
- Drain the spinach and squeeze out as much of the excess water as possible.
- Place the basil, parsley, pistachios, spinach, and lemon juice in a food processor or blender. Pulse until finely minced. Add 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and pulse again until incorporated.
- Add the mascarpone, cooked onions and garlic, and ½ cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano to the food processor along with a big pinch of salt. Pulse until smooth. Add half of the pasta water and continue blending until smooth. Transfer the sauce to a bowl.
Sauce the pasta:
- Add the cooked pasta to the bowl of sauce. Toss to coat, adding more pasta cooking water as needed until the pasta is completely coated.
- Divide the pasta between shallow bowls. Garnish with the remaining grated parm and a few basil leaves. Finish each bowl with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil if you like. Enjoy!