This Mediterranean penne pasta is amazing – your family will love it! Toss al dente penne pasta with garlicky sautéed spinach, red peppers, and pine nuts in a delectable sauce thickened with feta cheese. It reheats well, so I usually make a double batch – it never goes to waste!
My husband and I got married in New Orleans in August of 2005 – just three weeks before Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, we wound up spending most of our first couple of months of married life living in my in-laws’ basement in Arkansas. I was a bartender and a nursing student, stuck twiddling my thumbs in a dry county two states away from my flooded university while my husband worked 12 hour days online trying to keep his department afloat. I was depressed and feeling pretty useless, so I offered to cook meals a couple of nights a week so I could at least contribute a little to their household.
My father-in-law told a story one day about how he’d been craving this particular pasta dish that they used to serve at a restaurant near the courthouse where he was a judge, and he hadn’t had it in years. I had him describe it to me, and it sounded similar to one that we served at an Italian restaurant where I’d briefly waited tables. I hadn’t been privy to the recipe, but thought I knew the ingredients well enough that I could create something similar. The next night, this dish was born.
There are three separate steps involved in making this pasta: the sauce, the veggies, and the noodles/assembly. I’ll describe each one here, or feel free to skip ahead to the recipe for the shorter version.Jump to Recipe
To begin, get out a medium to large pot and your largest sauté pan. Warm each over medium heat. In the pan, drizzle some olive oil and add a quartered shallot and a couple of smashed and peeled garlic cloves. After stirring for a minute, add a cup of dry white wine. Let reduce over medium heat for about 10 min, or until the alcohol smell is gone.
While the wine is reducing, start a roux for your velouté. A what for your what? Velouté is one of the five “mother sauces” of French cooking, and is French for velvet. The word sounds fancy, but the sauce is nothing but. It simply consists of a roux (flour and a fat mixed together to make a thickening agent) with stock added slowly over heat. I use 1/3 cup of butter as the fat in this recipe, and once melted over medium-low heat, add an equal portion of flour. Stir continuously for just a few minutes, and do not allow it to burn or brown. We want a blonde roux for this light sauce.
Once the roux has cooked for a few minutes, add chicken or vegetable stock, about a quarter cup at a time. Homemade stock is best (chicken bone broth), but boxed low-sodium is acceptable. Stir regularly after each addition, and note that it’s normal for the velouté to initially appear to be getting thicker as the liquid is mixed in. After a cup of stock has been mixed in, the wine will likely be reduced enough for use. Strain the wine through a colander into the sauce, using the back of a wooden spoon to press accumulated juices and flavor out of the aromatics and into the pot. Leave the bercy sauce on a back burner over low heat, stirring occasionally. Keep an additional half cup of stock on hand, and add a bit whenever the sauce appears to be getting too thick. Taste periodically, and add salt and pepper to taste.
The “Meat” of the Recipe: Spinach, Peppers, and Pine Nuts
After straining the reduced wine into the bercy sauce, you can put that same pan back on the stove over medium heat. Add a tablespoon or so of olive oil and once warm, an 8 oz bag of fresh spinach. You may substitute a package of defrosted frozen as well, but make sure it’s cut leaf and not chopped. Sauté until it starts to wilt, adding more oil if needed, and salt and pepper to taste. Add 2 cloves of finely minced garlic and cook for about another minute. Remove to a mesh sieve, and use the back of a wooden spoon to squeeze some of the liquid out of the spinach – this step is particularly important if you used frozen. Place the spinach in a bowl.
Next, slice the red bell pepper into 1/4″ thick strips. Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan and sauté the bell peppers until tender. Salt and pepper to taste and add to the bowl with the spinach.
Next, toast some pine nuts. Use a small clean sauté or frying pan for this. No oil is needed. Warm the pan over medium heat, and once hot, add 2 oz pine nuts. Give the pan a bit of a shake every couple of minutes to prevent sticking, and remove from the heat once they get just a bit browned. Place in a small bowl.
Assembly of Mediterranean Penne Pasta
Put a large pot of water on to boil (while you’re making the vegetables is a good time if you have burner space). Boil a pound of penne in salted water according to package directions. Drain, reserving a bit of pasta water.
Warm that same large sauté pan over low heat. Add a tablespoon of olive oil. Crumble in 4 oz of feta cheese (my favorite is Weyauwega in brine). Add 3 cloves minced garlic. Stir until the cheese begins to melt. Add a ladle of bercy sauce and continue to stir to integrate the feta. Add the rest of the sauce and 1/4 – 1/2 cup of pasta water. Continue to stir and add a splash of stock if it seems too thick. If your pan is large enough, stir in the spinach and peppers. Toss to coat.
In a large bowl, toss the cooked penne with the vegetables in sauce until well-coated. Spoon a generous portion into each person’s bowl, and top with a sprinkle of pine nuts and a bit more feta. Serve with bread and either a salad or roasted green vegetables. I hope you love this Mediterranean penne pasta as much as we do!
Mediterranean Penne Pasta
- 4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil divided
- 1 shallot
- 9 garlic cloves divided
- 1 cup white wine chardonnay or pinot grigio, preferably
- 1/3 cup butter unsalted
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cup stock chicken or vegetable
- 8 oz spinach frozen cut leaf may be substituted
- 1 bell pepper red, sliced
- 2 oz pine nuts
- 1 lb penne
- 5 oz feta divided
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Place large sauté pan over medium heat. Add 1 T olive oil. Add 4 smashed cloves of garlic (no need to mince) and one peeled, quartered shallot. Add a pinch of salt. Sauté for 1 min and add white wine. Cook until wine is reduced to 1/3-1/2 original volume and no alcohol smell remains.
- Make a roux: melt butter over medium heat. Do not brown. Once melted, stir in flour. Stir continuously 2-3 min, then add stock in 1/4 cup increments until sauce has thinned to a stew-like consistency. Stir very frequently. Reserve remaining stock.
- Strain reduced wine through a fine mesh sieve. Push on aromatics with the back of a wooden spoon to extrude any remaining flavor from them, and discard contents of sieve. Stir wine into roux/stock mixture. Turn heat down to lowest setting and stir occasionally while moving on to next steps. Add additional stock as needed to keep from becoming too thick.
Vegetables and Pine Nuts
- Place large sauté pan over medium heat. Add 1T olive oil. Add spinach, salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes until all wilted. Add more oil if spinach starts to stick. Once spinach is wilted, add 2 cloves finely minced garlic. Cook an additional 1 min. Spoon spinach into fine mesh sieve and press against it with the back of a wooden spoon to remove excess liquid. Set aside in a large bowl.
- In same pan, add another 1T olive oil. Add sliced red pepper. Salt and pepper to taste. Sauté 5 in or until tender. Add to bowl with spinach.
- Heat small, clean, dry frying pan over medium heat. Add pine nuts. Toast, shaking pan horizontally every 30 seconds or so, until they begin to brown. Remove to small bowl.
Pasta and Assembly
- Bring large pot of water to a rapid boil. Salt. Add penne pasta. Cook according to package directions until desired done-ness. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup pasta water.
- Add 1 T olive oil to large sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add 4 oz crumbled feta cheese and 3 cloves finely minced garlic. Stir until feta begins to melt. Add 1 ladle of bercy sauce and stir to incorporate. Continue to add sauce incrementally and stir until cheese is melted (small pieces are fine). Taste, add salt and pepper if needed.
- Mix spinach and red pepper into feta sauce. Stir to coat. Add 1/2 c reserved pasta water. Add drained noodles. Toss/stir to coat. Taste again, season if needed.
- Portion pasta into individual bowls. Top each with pine nuts and a bit of crumbled feta. Serve with bread and a salad or roasted green vegetable.