8 and $20 Recipe: Simple Pesto Pasta with a Sicilian White

Easy tweaks, such as adding shrimp, make this summertime classic an ideal wine pairing
Jul 9, 2013

Eight ingredients. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a weeknight feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.

Among the surest signs that summertime has arrived are the piles of fresh basil available in markets. With this readily available ingredient comes a parade of dishes, from fresh tomatoes and basil to soup au pistou to the most classic of all: pesto. As time-honored a recipe as pesto is, it tends not to show up on wine-oriented menus; the flavors—intense garlic, aromatic basil, spicy olive oil—can overpower many wines. But should that stop you from attempting a pairing? Definitely not.

If you wanted to get fussy about regional matches, a light Vermentino from Northern Italy would work thematically with this Ligurian-style dish. But choosing a more substantial white also makes sense, considering the richness imparted by the cheese, nuts and olive oil hidden behind the sauce’s herbal façade. After I found a Sicilian white—a blend that included Grecanico and Chardonnay—for $17 in my local market, I decided to see if I could adjust the recipe to better suit the pairing.

For a baseline, I used the standard pesto recipe: throw all the raw ingredients into a blender. Loaded with raw garlic, the sauce had a kick that was toned down when added to the warm pasta—but not by much. The acidity of the wine worked well with the sauce, but that’s about all I could taste given the dominant herbal notes of the basil and the screechy qualities of the garlic.

As pointed out in Wine Spectator’s food-and-wine pairing issue from Sept. 30, 2010, the sulfur compounds in raw garlic make for a particularly challenging match. One easy solution from the article was to roast or cook the garlic, which helps build a bridge to fruitier whites and rosés. For the second trial, I toasted both the garlic and the pine nuts before blending the pesto. It was a win: The sauce mellowed out and gained a deeper, richer flavor, allowing the wine to shine next to the food.

For a final twist, I turned to an old pairing trick: Add something to the dish that the wine likes already. Here, I chose shrimp, simply sautéed, as an accent—a classic match to complement the Chardonnay in the blend. The addition warmed the flavors of the dish and anchored it with some entrée-level weight. On the wine side, the pairing worked too, with the shrimp helping to draw out the fruitier qualities that had previously been drowned out by the herbal sauce.

Pesto Pasta with Shrimp

Pair with a Sicilian white, such as Planeta La Segreta White 2010 (88 points, $15)

Total time: 25 minutes

Approximate food cost: $24

  • 3 unpeeled garlic cloves
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 2 cups fresh basil, destemmed
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 pound spaghetti

1. In a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pan, toast the unpeeled garlic cloves and pine nuts over medium-high heat until browned (around 1-2 minutes for the nuts, 7-10 minutes for the garlic).

2. Peel the garlic and place in a food processor along with the toasted pine nuts, cheese and basil. Pulse until combined, drizzling the olive oil in slowly. Season with salt to taste, and reserve.

3. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil over medium-high heat. Season the shrimp with salt and add to the pan, cooking until pink and done, stirring occasionally, around 6-8 minutes. Reserve.

4. In a large saucepot, bring salted water to a boil and add the pasta, cooking to the manufacturer’s specifications. Strain. Then, in a large bowl, toss the pasta with the pesto. Divide among four bowls, top with shrimp and serve immediately. Serves 4.

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