Eating for Life

Go for guilt-free pesto

Food styling by JILL WENDHOLT SILVA/Photo by TAMMY LJUNGBLAD/The Kansas City Star
Give your taste buds a boost with this reduced-calorie pesto. The secret ingredient is tomato, which adds antioxidants.

If your slumbering taste buds are revved up and ready for a taste of summer, you can’t go wrong with a dollop of basil pesto.

Except, of course, if you’re counting calories

An uncooked Italian sauce from Genoa, pesto is traditionally made from fresh basil, toasted pine nuts, Parmesan or pecorino cheese and olive oil. Whether pounded in a mortar and pestle or whirred in a food processor, the resulting green slurry is typically mixed with pasta.

In recent years, it has become a supermarket staple. Every bit as popular as marinara or Alfredo sauce, pesto has “one enormous shortcoming…: It oozes fat,” writes Jean Anderson, author of The Nutrition Bible (Morrow).

Sure, olive oil is a “good” monounsaturated fat. But Anderson makes an important point. Before slathering it on with wild abandon, it’s important to keep in mind that olive oil contains 120 calories per tablespoon — not exactly diet fare.

Some recipes try to reduce the oil by adding broth. But The Star’s Healthy Basil Pasta adds a fresh, juicy tomato instead, and no one at my house was the wiser. Our sleight of hand punches up the nutrition further by adding a bit of lycopene to the basil, which is loaded with antioxidants that can reduce harmful LDL cholesterol and suppress tumor growth.

Shopping tips: The recipe calls for close to 2 cups of basil leaves. Granted, it’s not inexpensive to buy basil out of season, but I guarantee it’s a whole lot better than the gloppy, store-bought containers of the stuff that may contain less expensive walnuts and a lower grade of olive oil.

Cooking tips: Submerge tomato in boiling water for 15 to 30 seconds to make it easier to peel.

The amount of garlic you use is a personal choice, but it does contain allicin, a phytonutrient that has antibacterial properties.

Storage tip: As the farmers markets begin to offer fresh basil, buy it in bunches. Make the pesto without the cheese and freeze it in an ice cube tray; pop out the cubes and store for up to three months. When thawed, stir in cheese.

If you have extra pesto left, feel free to use it on grilled chicken or fish.

Pump it up: To add fiber, try using whole-grain pasta.

Healthy basil pesto

Makes 8 side-dish servings

2 cups fresh basil leaves

1 to 2 cloves garlic, halved

3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium tomato, peeled and seeded

1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper, to taste

12 ounces cooked pasta such as penne or cavatappi, drained

Place basil, garlic and pine nuts in bowl of food processor. Pulse to blend; using rubber scraper, scrape down sides of the work bowl. With food processor running, slowly add olive oil until blended. Add tomato; pulse to blend. Remove to bowl and add Parmesan and salt and pepper, to taste. Toss with hot pasta.

Per serving: 219 calories (25 percent from fat), 6 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 2 milligrams cholesterol, 33 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, 58 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Recipes developed for The Star by home economists Kathryn Moore and Roxanne Wyss.

Food styling by JILL WENDHOLT SILVA/Photo by TAMMY LJUNGBLAD/The Kansas City Star