Pesto Trapanese

CT and I were recently watching an episode of “The Young Montalbano”, in which, as an aside, inspector Montalbano searched, in vain, for a jar of Pesto Trapanese, much to his housekeeper’s disgust. Having prepared the classic Pesto Genovese many times, I was curious to find out what this Sicilian variant was all about. After researching various recipes, I came up with what would seem to be a reasonable approximation of the dish.

The classic pesto comprises fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and Parmigiano Reggiano and/or Pecorino cheese. Sailors from Genoa are said to have brought this sauce, or something like it, to the Sicilian port of Trapani, where it was adapted according to local ingredients. Essentially, the pine nuts are replaced with almonds and fresh tomatoes are added. Variants exist which also include anchovies, capers, and sultanas. As we are reaching the end of the fresh tomato season, we thought it would be worth trying while we still have some suitable small sweet tomatoes.

Ingredients for the Sicilian Pesto Trapanese

Ingredients for the Sicilian Pesto Trapanese

Traditionally, pesto, of any sort, would be prepared using a pestle and mortar. There is a certain therapeutic value in this method of preparation, and it is always good to maintain the traditional ways of doing things. The texture of a handmade pesto may well be rather better than a processed version. On the other hand, when pressed for time, pesto can be prepared quickly and quite reasonably using a hand blender or food processor, although perhaps to somewhat justified cries of horror from some quarters. What is certain, though, is that a preparation from fresh ingredients is something that cannot be compared with a jar of any sort. Given that it only takes a few minutes, there really is no reason not to make fresh pesto.

Aside from the method of preparation, one also has a decision to make as to what to do with the tomatoes. Some recipes call for them to be deseeded and chopped whilst others expect them to be pounded to a pulp and mixed with the other ingredients. On this occasion, I opted to blend them with the other ingredients. Small tomatoes, such as cherry types are ideal, as they bring great flavour and sweetness to the sauce. I selected some of the small plum type, Principe Borghese. Whatever variety is chosen, it is important that they are of good quality and properly ripe as poor tomatoes would ruin this uncooked sauce.

From what I have read, it seems that traditionally this dish is served with a broad spiral shaped pasta known as busiati, but here I used linguine, and it works well. For the cheese, any Pecorino can be used except, in my view, Pecorino Romano, which is overly salty and has the wrong flavour and texture. If a good Pecorino is unavailable, Parmigiano Reggiano can be substituted.

It is fair to say that this is not the most attractive pesto that one could make. The mixing of green basil, pale golden almonds, and red tomatoes, makes for a rather dingy looking sauce. It is, though, an interesting change from the classic recipe, and yet another way to enjoy some fresh tomatoes in season. To be quite honest, it might not become a favourite, but I may well make it again, perhaps trying chopped tomatoes next time. In fact, I rather preferred the sauce on its own, and think it might be great on crostini.

Ingredients

serves 4

  • 100g almonds
  • 250g tomatoes
  • Large handful of basil leaves
  • 50g pecorino, plus extra to serve
  • 1 large clove of garlic
  • 1 small red chilli (optional)
  • 75ml extra virgin olive oil
  • Maldon salt
  • 400g pasta

Preparation

Unless using ready blanched almonds, place them in a bowl and pour over hot water. Leave to soak for 10 minutes; the skins should then be easily slipped off. Peel and roughly chop the garlic. Deseed and roughly chop the chilli, if using. Coarsely grate the cheese.

Method

Toast the almonds lightly in a dry pan until golden brown, being careful not to burn. Blend them until reasonably fine and set aside; a smooth paste is not necessary. If needed, add some of the olive oil to loosen the paste. Blend the basil and garlic, and then add the cheese and tomatoes. The latter can be deseeded and chopped if preferred. Add to the almonds, and mix well, incorporating the olive oil. Season to taste with a little salt.

Cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water, until just barely cooked so that it will soak up the sauce. Reserve a cup full of the cooking water before draining. Return the pasta to the pan and add the pesto. Stir well, adding enough of the reserved liquid to make a good consistency. Serve with a little extra cheese.

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