Watercress Pesto Pasta

 Europe trip recap! If you haven’t caught up on my three-week sojourn in the other hemisphere, so far I’ve talked about British bakeries, spending my birthday abroad, real-life Harry Potter encounters, some personal details from my trip in the UK, the beautiful city of Edinburgh, and lots of food (and Guinness!) in Ireland. And of course, the adventures continue below!

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Italy was a world in and of itself. I had visited Rome and Venice once in seventh grade, but this trip–taken nearly 14 years later–was something special. After a one-day layover from Ireland to England, I hopped on a plane that would take me to the final part of my Europe trip in the south of Italy. Bari, where the airport is located, is about an hour north of Putignano, a quiet town with a population of about 28,000 and home to Italy’s oldest annual Carnival. My friend Alessio picked me up from the airport and we took a tour of Bari (complete, of course, with my first taste of authentic Italian gelato) before heading south to the large countryside home where we would be staying for the week.

As a girl who can barely afford 500 square feet of living space in cramped Los Angeles, the idea of living in a second home in the country three months out of the year was completely unfathomable to me. When we rumbled up the narrow dirt lane that led to Alessio’s house that evening and his family came out onto the beautiful stone-laid patio to greet us, however, I could feel blissful imagination meld into a reality more romantic than anything that I could have dreamed up on my own. The country home was a converted ranch with a rustic outdoor seating area, several well-tended gardens bordering the patio, and rolling fields of grass that stretched to the outer edges of the property. Dinner was ready, so I moved my luggage into the guest apartment at the far end of the house and joined the family for the first of many amazing, regional, homecooked Italian meals to come.

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Eating panzerotti (fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce in fried dough), a regional specialty. This was also my face 97% of the time in Italy.

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Fresco is the Italian word for “fresh,” and it embodies my experience in Italy in so many ways. Every day we would sample fresh cheeses from the local cheese store or even the family’s neighbors; every day Alessio’s parents would go shopping for fresh ingredients, just enough for that day’s lunch and dinner. For someone who barely makes it out to the grocery store once a week (with the exception of emergency cookie butter runs at Trader Joe’s), it was, well, refreshing and exhilarating to experience the world of taste in such vivid technicolor for the first time. That first night, we enjoyed pasta with a olive oil and cheese drizzle that accentuated the freshness of the handmade noodles, followed by eggplant parmigiana and a bowlful of figs picked in my friend’s backyard.

(Note #1: NEVER invite me over to eat your homegrown figs. As quickly became apparent, I will eat them all.)

(Note #2: if you ever plan to visit Italy, never ever ever go without doing stomach expansion exercises well in advance. Every night I expected the food to stop coming after the first course, and every time my bursting belly roared in conflicted ecstasy when it saw courses two through five approaching.)

Those colorful homecooked meals became the inspiration behind this watercress pesto pasta, which I tasted (in admittedly a much more authentic form) on my fourth day in Italy. Finding that I was flat broke after my travels, however, and realizing that basil (the usual green used in Italian pestos) costs more than a buck for a few leaves in American stores, I decided to turn to a watercress recipe instead. (You can certainly substitute basil if your wallet isn’t crying, and using a mortar and pesto are definitely the way to go if you have them!) Phenomenal. This recipe is so forgiving–lemon to taste, salt and pepper to taste, even parmesan to taste if you want–and I couldn’t stop watering it with my tears of joy the week after I came home from Europe and was suffering from Italy food withdrawals. If you love the taste of Italy, you will want to try this pasta!

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What fresh foods are your favorite?


Watercress Pesto Pasta

Watercress Pesto Pasta

Prep Time: 15 hours
Cook Time: 15 hours
Total Time: 1 day 6 hours

Only the freshest of ingredients will do justice to this pesto pasta! This recipe uses the considerably less expensive watercress in place of traditional basil, but the results are a slighty chunky sauce that pairs perfectly with any type of ridged pasta. Recipe adapted from BBC Good Foods.


  • 2 cups rotini or other ridged pasta
  • 2 bunches watercress (about 85 grams), separated from stems
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup flaked almonds
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 10-12 cherry tomatoes, chopped


  1. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package instructions until al dente. Drain and set aside.
  2. Place the de-stemmed watercress and garlic in a food processor and blend until everything is finely chopped. Add parmesan, almonds, oil, and lemon juice. Continue blending until puree is mostly smooth, with a bit of chunkiness if desired. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Pour pesto over drained pasta, using a bit of water to loosen the sauce if needed. Add chopped tomatoes and serve fresh!



14 Replies to “Watercress Pesto Pasta”

  1. Watercress sounds like a great flavor swap in pesto! Almonds instead of pine nuts makes this recipe very affordable.
    Keep traveling, I like all your new recipes Ala!

    1. You know, I hadn’t even thought of that–the almonds DO make a difference! Thanks, Deb–more to come! xo

  2. soooo where’s the panzerotti in california?? that sounds amazing. and any iteration of pesto is fine by me (:

    1. OMG I know right–my Italian friend just joked the other day that I could make my own…then started laughing. It’s so sad. But yay for pesto!! xo

  3. Italy may be the best place in the world to eat. SO good! Time to get back there! Anyway, lovely dish — thanks.

    1. Agreed! I bet you had AMAZING food there as well, right John? I’m hankering for it already and it’s only been two months…

  4. I’m seriously in need of a vacation after seeing all your gorgeous photos of Europe. And I love the idea of using watercress to create a pesto! I’ll have to try it soon. Hopefully. Apparently, I’m in a pumpkin/fall food craze right now.

    1. hahaha go travel, girl–you deserve it! I saw your pumpkin cream cheese recipe the other day and I’m so glad you’re in the fall spirit. But yeah, give this pesto a go-go!

  5. Oh Ala, Bari sounds amazing! The way you describe the food alone makes me wanna pack my bags and head there! When you mention eating in technicolor – why that just might make me not wanna come back!
    By the way, I’ve never used watercress to make a pesto before and cannot wait to try this!

    1. I love that phrase so much–it encapsulates everything about the vividness of fresh produce, doesn’t it?? I bet you get a lot of that in your kitchen already though (another destination that I’d want to visit, no doubt! 😉 )

  6. Whoaaaaa….I’m so jelly of you! Been wanting to visit Europe since yearssss ago, but thanks to your story. You really took me there virtually and this pesto pasta makes me dreaming of Europe (Italy) even more. I hope the hubs gets the hint when I make this recipe this weekend 🙂

    1. gahhhh yes Linda, you NEED to go and visit! Drop those hints to the hubby! Dooo it, you’ll be so thankful you did 😀

  7. I adore you!!!! You are adorable and I loved armchair traveling with you! And I love the idea of watercress (since you were in Europe I’ll go ahead and call it “cress”) in pesto. <3

    1. eeeee why does everything sound so much quainter this way? I’d make cress pesto just ’cause. Yesss keep armchair traveling pleeease…and also bring me with you in a suitcase if you plan to go anywhere fun in the next 6 months lol (I’m travel-size?)

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