RECIPE

This magical basil cream sauce doesn't need any cream

An easy, breezy vegan recipe that's just perfect for summer

By Emma Laperruque
Published August 14, 2021 4:29PM (EDT)
Prop stylist: Veronica Olson. Food stylist: Sam Senevinatre. (Linda Xiao / Food52)
Prop stylist: Veronica Olson. Food stylist: Sam Senevinatre. (Linda Xiao / Food52)

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Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. That means five ingredients or fewer — not including water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (like oil and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Psst, did you hear we're coming out with a cookbook? We're coming out with a cookbook!

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Years ago, so they say, if a woman plopped a basil plant on her windowsill, it was a signal for her lover to come hither, the herbal precursor to texting "you up?" I'd like to think this summery pasta sauce has a similar effect.

It works with whatever shape you want — or whatever shape your special-someone wants — be that orecchiette or rigatoni, linguini or pappardelle, ramen or udon. This unabashedly green sauce charms everyone.

There are many basil cream sauces out there, and just about all of them include basil and cream. Also: onion, garlic, Parmesan, pine nuts, chicken broth, lemon, other herbs, and even bread crumbs.

This recipe includes the basil, yes, but none of the other ingredients. Not even the heavy cream (or light cream or half-and-half or milk). Instead, it ushers in something else, something just as satisfying and lip-smacking, yet also dairy-free—cashews.

Vegan cookbook author Gena Hamshaw calls cashew cream "one of the most powerful tools that any vegan home cook can have in his or her arsenal." I'd argue the same for any not-vegan home cook, too.

While other nut milks mandate lengthy soaking (who has the time?) and cheesecloth straining (who has the cheesecloth?), cashew cream couldn't care less. The nuts are soft enough that a 30-minute bath does the trick. And you don't need a fancy blender to yield something velvety enough to skip straining altogether.

It's a still-creamy, not-heavy, just-right backdrop for an obscene amount of greenery. Quickly blanched to set its color (we need that boiling water anyway for the pasta), then chucked into a blender, the basil is no longer an herby accent to a creamy sauce. It is the sauce.

With a very dry, very cold white wine — or bubbly, why not? — it's my idea of an ideal summer date night. Justin, are you reading this?

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Recipe: Pasta With Basil Cashew Cream

Prep time: 35 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Serves: 2 to 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup (4 ounces) raw cashews
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 3/4 cups packed basil leaves (2 ounces leaves, from 3 1/4 ounces basil), plus more for garnish if you'd like
  • 8 ounces pasta, any shape

Directions:

  1. Add the cashews to a blender and cover with cold water. Soak for 30 minutes to 24 hours, depending on your schedule. (If you're soaking for longer than 2 hours, transfer the blender to the fridge.) 
  2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then season generously with salt. Add the basil leaves and blanch for 15 seconds. Use a large spider or fine-mesh sieve to transfer to a kitchen towel and squeeze dry. 
  3. Bring the water back to a boil, then add the pasta. Cook according to the package instructions until as tender as you like.
  4. Meanwhile, drain the cashews, then return them to the blender along with ½ cup of cold water and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Blend until silky smooth, with no grainy bits, scraping down as needed. Add the basil and another 1/4 cup of cold water. Keep blending until as smooth as possible, scraping down as needed. The finished sauce should be a bright, solid pea green. Season to taste with salt — the basil and cashews are each sweet in their own way, so generous seasoning is a must. Pour the sauce into a serving bowl. 
  5. When the pasta is done, use a spider or tongs (depending on the pasta shape) to transfer it to the bowl with the sauce. Toss to combine. Season with salt to taste and add a splash of water (either pasta water or tap water) if needed to loosen up. Sprinkle tiny basil leaves on top if you're using them.

Emma Laperruque

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Basil Cashews Food Food52 Recipe Sauce Vegan