Creamy Tomato Basil Pasta with Kale

Tomato basil rotini in a bowl with creamy sauce getting poured over it
Tomato basil rotini in a bowl with creamy sauce getting poured over it
7/25/18

Cashew-based pasta sauces are delicious in theory- creamy, indulgent, and conveniently plant-based. In reality, this type of sauce dries up once exposed to the heat of freshly cooked pasta or roasted vegetables. It appears to be just as luscious as any deluxe mac and cheese, until you let it sit for more than 30 seconds. Then it crumbles like your vegan alfredo dreams.

After much trial and error, I found a cashew-based sauce that stays creamy and delicious long enough for me taste and adjust, take a dozen photos, re-heat it slightly as it will have gone cold, and finally allow all three of my drooling family members to enjoy it (sorry, everyone).

A large bowl of raw kale

One cup of raw cashews gets soaked for however long you have, preferably 30 minutes or so, then combined with the classic trio of olive oil, garlic, and salt. The seasoning is pretty heavy, because you’ll be adding pasta water a bit later. As with many excellent sauces, the secret to this recipe lies in the addition of pasta water.

Cashew-based sauces are determined to dry up, so it takes an overwhelming amount of that salty, starchy, pasta water to force them into permanent creaminess. I use at least 1/2 cup, but I reserve 2 cups of pasta water in case I need more. I almost always end up tossing in about 1/2 cup more as I combine the pasta and sauce.

An array of cherry tomatoes on a white cutting board, cut in half

I can’t really give you an exact pasta water to cashew ratio because this will depend on how much water you use to cook your pasta (less water = less starchy), how much salt you add to the pasta water, the type of salt you use, how long you’ve soaked your cashews, the list goes on. As with any recipe, trust your eyeballs and your tastebuds and you will achieve a delicious result.

But the flavor doesn’t end there. After the sauce is done, cherry tomatoes are halved and sautéed in olive oil until their skins burst and wrinkle and their sweet juices concentrate with intense flavor. Piles of kale join the mix for just a few minutes until the leaves turn bright green and crisp-tender. The pasta gets tossed with the vegetables first, then the sauce gets poured in and ridiculously delicious things happen.

A skillet with rotini, sautéed kale, and tomatoes all tossed together

As a final touch, I drizzle in a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and toss in a handful of torn basil leaves. The vinegar adds a lip-smacking zip to the meal and the herbs add wonderful freshness, lightening up the pasta’s creaminess. Make sure to tear (and not cut) the basil so it doesn’t turn brown. You can also use mint if it’s currently taking over your garden, or if you’d like a less-expected flavor combo.

Although this dish is great with kale and tomatoes, you can use whatever vegetables you like, or whatever is in season. Try onions and mushrooms, zucchini and squash, even roasted broccoli or cauliflower. Everything will get cloaked in that irresistible (vegan!) sauce anyway, which won’t cause any complaints.

Bowl of rotini with tomato, basil, and sautéed kale

Creamy Tomato Basil Pasta with Kale
Prep Time
10 mins
Cook Time
30 mins
Total Time
40 mins
 
Burst cherry tomatoes, tender kale leaves, and a sprinkling of basil are the perfect accompaniment to this creamy vegan pasta.
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American
Keyword: plant-based, vegan, vegetarian, weeknight dinner
Servings: 4
Calories: 590 kcal
What you need
For the Sauce
  • 1 cup raw cashews soaked in warm water for at least 30 mins and up to overnight, strained
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 cup pasta water
For the Pasta
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes halved
  • 1 lb kale stems removed, chopped into bite-size pieces
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 lb whole wheat farfalle or penne
  • 1 cup fresh basil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
What you do
Cook Pasta
  1. Boil water in your favorite pasta pot. Add pasta, about 2 tablespoons of salt, and cook according to package directions.

Start Sauce
  1. Put all of the ingredients for the sauce (except pasta water) into a food processor or high powered blender (I used a Vitamix) and set aside. You'll mix it up when you've got the pasta water.
Sauté Veggies
  1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet (preferably with high sides). Add the cherry tomatoes and cook 5 minutes over medium-high heat, tossing halfway through cooking time. Season with ½ teaspoon salt. They should get nice and blistered, almost melted. Add in the kale, season with salt and pepper. Add a little extra olive oil if pan seems dry. Sauté kale until tender but still bright green, about 5 more minutes.
Toss pasta with vegetables
  1. By this time your pasta should be done. Reserve two cups of pasta water, then drain and add pasta to the skillet with tomatoes and kale. Season the pasta with pepper and a drizzle of olive oil, toss with the vegetables. Add 1/2 cup pasta water to your food processor or blender with the rest of the sauce ingredients and blend 2-3 minutes until smooth and creamy, adding more pasta water if necessary.

Final touches
  1. Add sauce into pasta and toss (add more pasta water if it still seems dry). Tear fresh basil over everything and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

Notes

Make sure you use PLENTY of pasta water in your sauce. It should be a little runny and easy to toss with the pasta, not gloppy.

Adjust salt as needed if you add too much water.

If your pan isn’t big enough to toss everything together, transfer to a large bowl.

This dinner could probably serve 6, but it is so good that people will want seconds. My family of four nearly finished the whole thing.

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