Creamy Pesto Penne with Steelhead, Mushrooms and Spinach is the perfect dish to start Lent

"Home with the Lost Italian" columnist Sarah Nasello shares a simple dish to begin the season of Lent or enjoy year-round.

Sarah's Creamy Pesto Penne with Steelhead, Mushrooms and Spinach is the perfect meatless dish for Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays.
Contributed / Sarah Nasello

FARGO — Today is Ash Wednesday and this Creamy Pesto Penne with Steelhead, Mushrooms and Spinach is the perfect meatless dish to kick off this new Lenten season. Featuring protein, vegetables, starch and dairy all in one dish, this recipe has everything you need for a simple and delicious weeknight meal.

Steelhead trout is similar in color and taste to salmon, but has less fat and fewer calories and is typically less expensive.
Contributed / Sarah Nasello

My son calls this dish “pink fish pasta” because you can use either steelhead trout or salmon. Both fish are similar in color and taste, but I tend to favor trout for this cream-based recipe because it has less fat and fewer calories than salmon and is typically less expensive. I use a whole fish filet for this recipe and bake it in the oven until it is fully cooked, flaky and opaque, which takes about 15 to 17 minutes for trout and 20 to 23 minutes for salmon.

While the fish is in the oven, I boil the pasta and prepare the cream sauce. This requires a modicum of multi-tasking, so be sure that you have all the ingredients chopped and measured before you begin. You can also prepare the fish up to 24 hours in advance and add it to the pasta just before serving. If you go this route, I recommend taking the fish out of the refrigerator before you begin cooking so that it can come to room temperature as you prepare the other components.

The grooves and tubular shape of penne pasta help the cream sauce to cling to the noodle.
Contributed / Sarah Nasello

My recipe calls for basil pesto, but you can use any kind of pesto you prefer. Penne is my favorite pasta to use with cream-based sauces, as its tubular shape and grooves are designed to make the sauce cling to the noodle. This recipe calls for one pound of pasta, and I cook it until it is al dente — just slightly undercooked — so that it doesn’t become mushy as it continues to cook in the cream sauce.

Drain the pasta over the spinach to quickly wilt the greens.
Contributed / Sarah Nasello

I recently learned a cool trick for wilting the spinach — place the spinach in a colander and then drain the pasta directly over it. The heat from the water and the pasta perfectly wilts the spinach, and I toss the mixture with a tablespoon of olive oil to keep it fresh and prevent the pasta from clumping together. Before draining the pasta, I reserve a cup of the water to use later in the sauce.


The cream sauce is easy to make and I have included timing for each step to simplify the process. It starts with sauteing the aromatics in butter — onion, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes, followed by the mushrooms — and I like to slice them thick for a meaty quality.

Sliced mushrooms are sauteed in butter with onions, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes, until just tender.
Contributed / Sarah Nasello

The cream comes next, then the pesto and parmesan cheese, and then the pasta and wilted spinach. The reserved pasta water is added throughout to keep the sauce smooth and silky, and the trout broken into penne-sized pieces and tossed with the pasta just before serving.

This Creamy Pesto Penne with Steelhead, Mushrooms and Spinach is an easy and delicious dish that can be enjoyed throughout the Lenten season and beyond. Best wishes for a peaceful and productive Lent.

Creamy Pesto Penne with Steelhead, Mushrooms and Spinach

Serves: 4 to 6


Extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ to 2 pounds whole steelhead trout or salmon filet
Kosher salt
Black pepper
1 pound penne pasta
3 cups baby spinach
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup yellow onion, medium-dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
8 ounces button or baby bella mushrooms, sliced ¼-inch thick
2 cups heavy cream
¼ cup pesto
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese


Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat; add penne pasta and cook according to directions on package until al dente. Before draining the water, reserve 1 cup of the pasta water for later use.


Place the spinach in the bottom of a colander and pour the pasta on top of the greens to drain the water. Drizzle the pasta with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and toss to combine; set aside.

As the pasta cooks: Drizzle the baking sheet lightly with olive oil. Place the steelhead filet on the greased foil and drizzle the top with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season the top of the filet with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Bake in the center of the oven until fully cooked and opaque, about 15 to 17 minutes (20 to 23 if using salmon). Remove the fish from the oven and set aside until the pasta is ready.

As the fish bakes: In a large pan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook until translucent, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and continue cooking for 1 minute, stirring often.

Add the sliced mushrooms and cook until just tender, about 4 minutes. Add the heavy cream and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer for 3 to 5 minutes until the cream appears thick, frothy and bubbly.

Reduce heat to low and stir in the pesto. Cook for 2 minutes, then add the parmesan cheese and ¼ cup of the reserved pasta water; stir until combined. Taste and add more salt and pepper as desired.

Add the cooked pasta and wilted spinach; toss until evenly coated with the sauce. Break the fish into penne-sized pieces and stir into the pasta. Add ¼ cup more pasta water and cook until the sauce is silky and smooth, about 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the pasta to a serving dish and serve immediately.

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“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at
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