This magical recipe from Joshua McFadden’s cookbook Six Seasons transforms stiff, hearty greens into a luscious, velvety sauce.
During the dull dregs of winter, I find myself searching for bright and refreshing recipes. Here in Massachusetts, the sun sets as early as 4:45 PM in January, and the light begins to fade well before that.
I’ve heard about Joshua McFadden’s kale pasta recipe for many years, but I only recently tried it after purchasing his book, Six Seasons. If you haven’t heard of McFadden, or his cookbook, I highly recommend it as a great source of vegetable-forward recipes and ideas. It’s divided into six sections corresponding with the seasons (spring, early summer, midsummer, late summer, fall, and winter). There are several recipes for each seasonal vegetable, providing loads of inspiration.
Now…back to this kale pasta sauce recipe.
What Makes This Recipe Special
I always present a healthy dose of skepticism when I see a shockingly simple recipe like this. When I first attempted the recipe, I felt an urge to adapt and alter the ingredient list, to add a pop of flavor here and there. But I resisted; I wanted to taste the pasta as written, as intended.
I’m thrilled I did because I was pleasantly surprised at how much delicious and complex flavor came through with such a short list of ingredients:garlic, olive oil, kale, pasta, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and salt and pepper. I won’t be mad if you try this recipe and doctor it up, but I will say it’s plenty delicious as is!
- Blanching and blending hearty kale with pasta water yields a luxurious, velvety, mildly earthy and vegetal sauce.
- Sizzling garlic in oil offers an aromatic, almost toasty flavor to the kale sauce.
- A handful of grated cheese melts into the sauce to provide a salty flavor and creamy texture.
In recipes such as this one, where there are very few ingredients, each ingredient plays a starring role in providing texture and flavor for the dish.
- Garlic: Garlic and kale are a match made in heaven, and the softened, golden-hued garlic provides a nice contrast to the vegetal kale in this sauce.
- Extra-virgin olive oil: You don’t need to use your fanciest olive oil here, but I’d recommend using a good olive oil — something you’d enjoy dipping a piece of bread into or using in a salad dressing.
- Kale: McFadden states that all kale varieties work well here. He is particularly fond of using lacinato (or dinosaur kale), but I regularly use curly kale and it’s delicious too.
- Dried pasta: I’m partial to rigatoni or any tubular pasta, but truly, any pasta shape will work!
- Salt and black pepper: It may seem silly to list such mundane ingredients as salt and pepper, but they’re pivotal in this recipe with so few ingredients. If you feel like the pasta sauce doesn’t have enough flavor, check to see if it needs more salt, or a bit of peppery flavor from freshly ground black pepper.
- Parmigiano-reggiano cheese: The cheese here provides salty, umami notes — and gives the pasta a slightly creamy texture too.
How to Make Kale Pasta Sauce
I love that this recipe can be on your table in less than thirty minutes. Let’s walk through how!
- Prep the kale
Remove any thick ribs and stems from the kale. With lacinato kale, I remove the full rib (or stem) in the center of the leaf. With curly kale, I usually just remove the thickest part of the stem.
- Make the garlic oil
Heat olive oil and garlic until the garlic begins to sizzle, then cook on low heat until soft, light golden, and aromatic. Set aside to cool.
- Boil the kale
Meanwhile, boil the kale in a big pot of salted water until tender (but not mushy). Remove and transfer to a large blender cup or stand blender.
- Boil the pasta
In the same water you used to boil the kale, add the pasta. Cook until al dente and make sure to reserve some pasta water for the sauce!
- Blend the kale sauce
Blend the garlic, olive oil, and kale into a thick, smooth puree. This may take a few minutes so have some patience here. If you need a little pasta water to smooth out the sauce, feel free to add that in. Season with salt and pepper.
- Finish the sauce
Toss the pasta with the sauce and half of the cheese, and loosen with pasta water as needed to form a clingy, saucy consistency that’s not too thick or dry. Season again, and note that a little bit of salt can go a long way here to bring out the underlying flavors of the kale, cheese, and garlic.
Divide pasta amongst serving bowls and top with more cheese and a big glug of olive oil.
Dress it Up
Like I said, this recipe is delicious on its own, but it does offer a myriad of possibilities!
- Add a pinch of red pepper flakes to the oil when sauteeing the garlic for a spicy kick.
- Blend an anchovy or two into the kale sauce for even more salty, umami flavor.
- Garnish the pasta with chopped toasted nuts, like walnuts or pine nuts, for additional toasted nuttiness.
Make it a Meal
- Serve this pasta alongside these roasted beets with herby skyr, shrimp cacciatore, or roasted squash and lentils.
- For a super quick midweek lunch, I like to eat this pasta with some tinned fish.
Leftover kale sauce will last 2 to 3 days in the fridge stored in an airtight container. Reheat it in the microwave until just warmed through, then toss with fresh, hot pasta.
Yes and no. The pasta sauce requires some pasta water, so I’d recommend making the garlic oil and blanching the kale. Blend that up into a chunky puree ahead of time.
Then, just before serving, cook the pasta. Finish making the pasta sauce with the reserved pasta water and finish the dish as instructed.
This can happen sometimes depending on what kale you cook, how much pasta water you use, etc. You can always make more pasta with the leftovers, but here are some other ideas: drizzle the sauce on roasted vegetables or mix with yogurt for a fun dip.
Did you try this recipe? I would love to hear your feedback! Be sure to rate the recipe and leave a comment below.
For even more cozy recipes, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter.Happy eating! Love, Karishma
Kale Pasta Sauce (Joshua McFadden’s Recipe)
- Immersion blender Or a stand blender
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 1 pound kale, any variety works here | thick ribs/tough stems removed
- 1/2 pound dried pasta, such as rigatoni or pappardelle | any variety works here
- 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Boil the water: Set a large pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil.
- Make the garlic oil: Meanwhile, add garlic and 1/4 cup of olive oil to a small skillet. Set over medium heat, and saute until the garlic begins to sizzle. Immediately reduce the heat to low, then cook the garlic until light golden-brown, soft, and aromatic, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to a large blender cup (if using an immersion blender) or the base of a stand blender. Set aside.2 cloves garlic, Extra-virgin olive oil
- Cook the kale: Once the water is boiling, generously season with salt. Add the kale and boil until tender but not mushy, about 5 minutes. Use tongs to remove them from the pan and carefully transfer to the blender cup/base.Don't worry if the kale leaves are still wet! The excess liquid will help create a velvety sauce.Kosher salt and black pepper, 1 pound kale
- Cook the pasta: With the water still boiling, add the pasta and cook until al dente (according to the package directions). Once al dente, transfer 1 cup of the pasta water to a heatproof measuring cup.Drain the pasta, then transfer the cooked pasta back to the pot.1/2 pound dried pasta
- Blend the sauce: Blend the kale with the oil and garlic until the mixture resembles a chunky puree. Add in a bit of pasta water if needed to help puree the mixture into a homogeneous, smooth texture. Season with salt and pepper.Note: Use caution with hot liquids if you use a stand blender to blend the sauce. Make sure to remove the small blender cap from the blender cover and place a kitchen towel over the hole. Carefully begin blending at a low speed, then increase the speed in increments until pureed.It can take a little bit of time to puree the kale into a very smooth sauce — but it will make a big difference so don't rush it.
- Finish the pasta: Toss half of the kale puree with the drained pasta and half of the cheese. If the sauce feels dry, add more of the kale puree (I find that this can make a lot of kale sauce, so I add half of the sauce first, then adjust as needed).If needed, add a little bit more pasta water to thin out the sauce until it's saucy but nicely clings to the pasta. Season again with salt and pepper.Note: If for some reason your sauce feels way too loose, you can put the pot back on the stove over low heat, stirring continuously until it thickens.3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Serve: Divide the pasta amongst serving bowls and drizzle with a bit of olive oil and the remaining cheese.