After my three-month hiatus: an overcooked goulash of endings, beginnings and strange middles over seasoned with excuses, sabotage and a big glug of procrastination, I think I owe it to you, and myself for that matter, to get on with it. Please excuse me if I’m a little rusty.
At least I haven’t had to procrastinate over which recipe to share with you. Watermelon, ice cream and insalata caprese season combined with the fact I’ve been even more habitual than usual in the kitchen, seeking reassurance from the goulash with faithful recipes and my fallback: bread and cheese, has meant I’ve barely made anything I haven’t already written about! Except the pesto that is, or more precisely pesto alla trapanese.
The word pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare, which means to pound or grind, and is used to describe a thick raw sauce made by pounding a mass of aromatic herbs in a pestle and mortar with salt, garlic and perhaps nuts and cheese. Pesto can be stirred into pasta, spooned over soup or fish, or spread liberally over bread, pastry or pizza. The most famous pesto – excuse me if I avoid the words invented, original, authentic or perfect, I find they can cause problems – is pesto alla genovese, a glorious green amalgam of genovese basil, pine nuts, parmesan or pecorino sardo, ligurian olive oil and salt. I’m extremely fond of pesto alla genovese and I’ve written it about before.
Pesto alla trapaneze, which I’d heard of but never made until I opened this beautiful book, is a sauce made by pounding almonds, garlic and basil in a mortar and then adding olive oil, maybe cheese, salt and finely peeled, deseeded and chopped tomato. I suppose you could crudely translate it as Pesto Trapani style (Trapani being a city on the west coast of Sicily that I’d very much like to visit) but why would you when it sounds so much nicer in Italian. It sounds better still in Sicilian, pasta cull’agghia. Apparently the genovese sailors who steered their ships in Trapani’s sickle-shaped port on the way to the orient brought the tradition of pesto to Sicilian shores, the local sailors then adopted and adapted the recipe using local ingredients, namely almonds instead of pine nuts and tomatoes
Considering tomatoes affinity with basil, cheese and garlic, and knowing what a good and handsome couple the soft sweet and sour flesh of tomatoes and pesto alla genovese make – neatly illustrated by another of my fallbacks, toast spread with pesto and topped with two half moons of grilled tomato – it’s hardly surprising pesto alla trapanese, which is essentially pesto alla genovese made with almonds and the addition of tomato, is quite delicious. You’ll discover how well almonds work in pesto, lending their milky, almost grassy nature and hint of bitterness to proceedings. You’ll see the way they pound into a soft nutty cream with the garlic, which provides a perfect base for the fragrant, spicy, most irritatingly likable of herbs: basil and its loyal comrades olive oil, tomatoes and cheese.
Ah yes, the cheese. The first recipe I found, and the one I follow pretty faithfully doesn’t include cheese. The absence of cheese means you can really taste the almonds and appreciate the way they temper and compliment the volatile garlic (much in the same way as in the Spanish ajo blanco, the excellent almond and garlic soup). Omitting the cheese also allows the spicy warmth of the basil to come through. Having said that, I also really like pesto alla trapanese made with cheese (I used a mixture of parmesan and pecorino), it’s a bolder, saltier sauce, richer and rounder. The nice thing is, you can choose! I suggest experimenting, the recipe is worth it. You could of course simply offer a bowl of freshly grated cheese at the table and people can add it if they wish.
I make pesto in a pestle and mortar. It’s not about being a purist or extremely authentic, it’s because I enjoy the pounding and grinding, in much the same way that I like whisking egg whites till my arms hurt, kneading bread dough with slightly demented enthusiasm and smashing ice cubes for cocktails with a rolling-pin while laughing hysterically and thinking of the woman who works behind the cheese counter – one of these is not true! Having boasted about my elbow grease I should probably note that there are many kitchen tasks I happily delegate to a clever tool or machine, just not pesto. You can of course make pesto alla trapanese in a food processor. The method is pretty much the same for both man and machine.
First you pound or pulse the almonds and garlic into a fine flour. Then you add the washed and dried basil leaves. If you’re using a pestle and mortar, you want to work the leaves into the flour by grinding the ingredients firmly against the side of the mortar with the pestle, you want the basil to break up, dissolve almost, in much the same way as when you rub a tender leaf between your fingertips. Once the basil is incorporated, you stir in the cheese if you are adding it, and then add the olive oil in a thin steam while beating with small wooden spoon.
Pesto made in a pestle and mortar will always have a much coarser texture than pesto made with a machine, think rough as opposed to fine sandpaper, five o’ clock shadow as opposed to super clean shaved. I know what I prefer. If you are working in a food processor, add the olive oil at the same time as the basil and pulse until you have a creamy consistency. Turn off the machine and stir the cheese into the mixture by hand. Now you turn your attention to the tomatoes.
While your spaghetti in rolling around in plenty of well salted boiling water, you peel, deseed and roughly chop the tomatoes. It may seem like a bit of a bother to peel the tomatoes, well it can to me anyway, but I assure you it really isn’t and it’s an important step in this recipe! Skip it and you’ll end up with tough little red chunks and a rather watery sauce. Just before you drain the pasta you mix the tomatoes and the pesto together in a large serving bowl. When the spaghetti is ready – al dente as the Italian say, which means’ to the tooth’ and describes the point when the pasta is cooked and tender but still with a slight chewy bite – drain and then stir it into the pesto alla trapanese, adding a little of the pasta cooking water you have set aside if you feel the mixture needs loosening slightly, then you serve
The warmth of the pasta brings everything together, heightening the nature of each ingredient and uniting them further into a harmonious tumble. A very good lunch, so much nicer than my goulash.
Spaghetti con pesto alla Trapanese
Adapted from a recipe in La cucina Siciliana by Maria Teresa di Marco e Marie Cecile Ferrè
- 50g skinned almonds
- 2 or 3 cloves garlic
- 35 tender basil leaves
- 50g parmesan or pecorino (or a mix of both) – this is optional
- 100ml extra virgin olive oil
- 3 medium-sized tomatoes
- 450g spaghetti (or di mafadine or orrichiette)
Pound the almonds and garlic into a fine flour. Add the washed and carefully dried basil leaves into the flour by grinding the ingredients firmly against the side of the mortar with the pestle, you want the basil to break up, dissolve almost, in much the same way as when you press a tender leaf between your fingertips.
Once the basil is incorporated, stir in the cheese if you are adding it, and then add the olive oil in a thin steam while beating with small wooden spoon. Taste and add a pinch of salt if necessary.
In a food processor:
Pulse the almonds and garlic into a fine flour. Add the washed and dried basil leaves along with the olive oil and pulse until you have a creamy consistency. Turn off the machine and stir the cheese into the mixture by hand if you are adding it. Taste and add a pinch of salt if necessary.
Continue both methods as follows:
Peel the tomatoes by plunging them into a bowl of boiling water for 60 seconds, remove them with a slotted spoon and plunge them into a bowl of iced water for 30 seconds – the skins should slip away. Cut the tomatoes in half, scoop out the seeds and cut away the hard central core. Rough chop the tomatoes.
Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and then cook the spaghetti until al dente.
While the spaghetti is cooking mix the tomatoes with the pesto in a large serving bowl. Drain the spaghetti – reserving some of the cooking water – and mix with the pesto. Add a little of the cooking water to loosen the pasta if you feel it is necessary. Serve immediately.
I can’t really believe I’ve written, never mind finished a post, I was starting to believe I would never come back! But I did, which has probably surprised me more than it will you. It will certainly surprise my brother Ben who took great pleasure in telling me he was so bored of waiting that he has deleted me from his favorites, bookmarks and at this point probably his computer. I think it will take more than one post to be reinstated.
I don’t intend to present you with the whole messy goulash, but the nature of the blog means we probably have some catching up to do. I promise rambling will always be accompanied by suggestions for a good lunch, or supper, or – if all goes according to plan – almond cake and lemonade. As always thank you very much for all your kind and thoughtful messages and patience. I hope you are having a good summer wherever you are.