5 Plant-Based Pasta Sauces From Culinary School in Italy

Use greens, beans, nuts, and broth to make beyond-satisfying vegan sauces

Scroll on to learn about the kale-almond pesto coating these lumache. Photos: Sara Cagle

When people ask me about the best thing I learned in Italian culinary school, I’m tempted to hit ’em with a showstopper — like the beef-tongue ravioli with carrot-ginger sauce or the seared scallops with a quintet of vegetable purées. Those were great, but if I’m being honest, the thing I’m most happy to have learned is much more practical for daily cooking: The sheer number of pasta sauces that are astoundingly delicious without meat or even cheese.

The secret? Combining ample extra-virgin olive oil and salt with one of five “bases,” which can be greens, nuts, greens and nuts, beans, or broth. Here’s how to make them. Rest assured that each is 100-percent vegan, Italian-approved, and proof that you don’t always need animal products to make pasta that warms your soul.

A note: Think of these sauces as loose foundations for your own customization; you can change out the base ingredients (kale instead of chard for the greens, almonds instead of walnuts for the nuts, etc.), switch up the flavor with your favorite herbs and spices, and combine them with any shape of pasta you like.

Orecchiette with broccoli-spinach sauce and garlicky breadcrumbs.
Orecchiette with broccoli-spinach sauce and garlicky breadcrumbs.
Orecchiette with broccoli-spinach sauce and garlicky breadcrumbs.

Greens base

The gist

Never has there been a more attractive way to consume several handfuls of greens than blended until smooth and tossed with pasta. It couldn’t be easier: Blanch whatever green vegetables you have (tender leaves will take 2–3 minutes, while hardy broccoli might take closer to 5) and blend with seasonings into what is essentially a hot and spicy green smoothie for your orecchiette. While you don’t have to top this with garlicky breadcrumbs, it is a great idea.

The method

  • Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. (You can use the same water for your vegetables and pasta — just add more salt when it’s time to cook the pasta). Blanch the vegetables, adding a clove of peeled garlic during the last minute of cooking (which will tame its punchiness a bit), and drain. Blend with cooking liquid, olive oil, salt, and fresh or dried chile until very smooth. (It’s OK to add a lot of liquid; the pasta will absorb it.) Pour sauce into a large saucepan to keep warm.
  • Meanwhile, cook the pasta and make the garlicky breadcrumbs. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil and a clove of peeled garlic in a nonstick skillet. When the oil is hot, add a handful of panko breadcrumbs and toast, tossing frequently, until very golden. Toss the cooked pasta with the green sauce, adding cooking liquid as needed, and serve with a generous sprinkling of garlicky breadcrumbs.
Pasta with pistachios and orange zest.
Pasta with pistachios and orange zest.
Pasta with pistachios and orange zest.

Nut base

The gist

This is the simplest base of the bunch in terms of the ingredient list. Pick a nut, chop it finely, toast it to draw out its nuttiest flavors, and combine it with olive oil and something fragrant — fresh herbs, citrus zest, or both—and you have a sauce that knows it’s effortless and is really confident about it. I’m featuring two recipes here because I just can’t choose.

The methods

  • Walnuts + sage: Toast a handful of finely chopped (but not powdery) walnuts over low heat in any pan that’s big enough for pasta tossing. When they’re browned and beautiful-smelling (which will happen quickly because they’re tiny), add the cooked pasta to the pan along with olive oil, cooking liquid, and a few finely chopped leaves of fresh sage, seasoning with salt and pepper, and toss until glossy. Serve immediately.
  • Pistachios + orange zest: Toast a handful of finely chopped pistachios over low heat in any pan that’s big enough for pasta tossing. When they’re browned and beautiful-smelling, add the cooked pasta to the pan along with olive oil, cooking liquid, and the zest of half an orange, seasoning with salt and tossing until glossy. Serve immediately.

Greens-and-nut base

The gist

You don’t need me to tell you about pesto Genovese. But what about a wintry alternative for when summer’s over, you don’t have basil, and you want a sauce that’s still light and bright yet a little heartier than herbs and pine nuts? Lemony kale-almond pesto is your answer. When served with shell-shaped pasta, it truly is on the same creamy-comfort level as mac and cheese.

The method

  • Cook 8 ounces kale (preferably de-stemmed) in salted boiling water until fork-tender, about 2 minutes. Add a clove of peeled garlic to the water during the last minute of cooking (again, to make it a bit less pungent). Rinse kale with cold water to preserve color and drain. (Don’t worry too much about getting rid of the moisture, as it will help loosen this very thick pesto.)
  • Add to a blender or food processor with the garlic, a generous few glugs of extra-virgin olive oil, ½ cup blanched (peeled) almonds, salt, and the zest and juice of 1 lemon. Blend until you have a thick but uniform paste. Combine a big spoonful with cooked pasta and cooking water and serve.
Brothy casarecce with cauliflower and miso.
Brothy casarecce with cauliflower and miso.
Brothy casarecce with cauliflower and miso.

Broth base

The gist

This soupy pasta starts with a flavorful vegan broth of garlic, tomatoes, water or vegetable stock, and miso, which joins forces with tomato paste to impart a deep red hue and umami essence that complements any vegetable. You’ll use this liquid gold for cooking pasta (short works best here) and vegetables simultaneously, so make sure that they are around the same size (i.e., casarecce with casarecce-sized cauliflower florets).

The method

  • In a medium pot, sauté halved cherry tomatoes in abundant olive oil until they begin to burst. Add 2–3 cloves of minced or grated garlic, fresh or dried chile, and a tablespoon of tomato paste. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  • Add a handful of cauliflower florets, season generously with salt and pepper, and toss until the cauliflower is so well-coated in the mixture that it turns the color of turmeric. Stir in a tablespoon of miso (I like red) and add two cups of water or vegetable stock.
  • Bring to a strong simmer, add the pasta, and cook until al dente. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and black pepper.
Creamy cannellini spaghetti.
Creamy cannellini spaghetti.
Creamy cannellini spaghetti.

Bean base

The gist

Starchy beans and pasta water make a creamy dressing that coats long pasta dreamily and can be used as a sauce or side for the rest of the week. If you like this dish, try ciceri e tria (pasta with chickpeas) for something more advanced.

The method

  • Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta until al dente. (If you want to include greens, blanch kale in the pasta water when the pasta is 2 minutes away from being done, or simply wilt in fresh baby spinach when you combine the pasta with the sauce.)
  • Meanwhile, roughly chop half of a yellow onion and sauté with abundant olive oil and salt until softened, adding smashed garlic and fresh or dried chile during the last 2 minutes of cooking. Pour in one can of cannellini beans (drained), season with more salt and pepper, and stir to heat. Place all ingredients in a blender with ½ cup pasta water, adding more as needed until the sauce is loose but very creamy.
  • Reserve more pasta water, drain the pasta, and combine vigorously with the bean sauce (and greens, if using), adding more water as needed until the mixture is very creamy. Top with chopped fresh thyme or parsley and serve.

Freelance food and travel writer. Living in LA and usually thinking about Italy. Work at saracagle.com and food pics @caglecooks

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