About time

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

Serves 4

  • 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
  • salt
  • 3 medium-sized tomatoes
  • 450g spaghetti (or di mafadine or orrichiette)
In a pestle and mortar:

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.


Filed under almonds, food, pasta and rice, recipes, sauces, summer food

49 responses to “About time

  1. Welcome back! We missed you!

  2. Steve

    Nice to have you back – I have got a super bumper crop of tomatoes about to explode into ripeness all at the same time – any suggestions?

  3. Anita

    Rachel, the recipe is beautiful – as usual. So glad to see you back blogging as have loved all your previous posts & recipes

    love from Ireland to Italy

  4. mimi007

    Thanks for the post. This looks wonderful and easy. I’ll try it soon.

  5. Wow, I would give this dish a try as I am a pasta fan

  6. Woo hoo!! Glad you are back xxx

  7. Glad to see you’re back! I do love myself some almonds….

  8. Welcome back, you’ve been missed! Can’t wait to give the pesto alla Trapanese a go.

  9. We’re having a non-existent summer, I wish I was having an Italian Summer instead… It is good to see you back, last weekend I was planning to email to say hi but, as we procrastinators tend to, I procrastinated. Gx

  10. Yay, so happy to see you back on the blog! And with THIS recipe…heaven!

  11. dorothee

    Yeah, your back! and with such a welcome recipe.

  12. Cristina Cassiano

    Ciao Rachel!
    So so glad you’re back! ( Don’t worry, most of us never deleted you from our favourites!)
    Loved the post, loved the recipe! As a pesto fan I’m definetely going to try this one!

  13. Yes! You are back! I’m so pleased.

  14. This looks wonderful. Although I always feel that homemade pesto is too nice to waste on pasta, preferring instead to eat it straight from the bowl, spooned onto bread. (Who am I kidding, the bread rarely gets used. Or the spoon.)

  15. Rosemary

    Welcome back, I was so happy to see this post! And I’m going to be very happy to try this recipe, too. Sounds fantastic.

  16. This recipe looks wonderful Rachel, thank you I will certainly give it a try.
    It is such a joy to see you posting again, I have missed your beautiful writting, Hope all is well and happy your end. x

  17. So happy to see another post from you! I’ve been checking in, remaining hopeful! I love your blog, recipes, and stories so much. And basil and tomatoes are prolific right now, what a timely post!

  18. I’m so happy to see the chair…And I can see you are eating very well, indeed. Roberto’s father flew to Italy just this past Wednesday. He will be there until mid-September!—I am envious. While he is away I will take over his Sunday ritual of placing a cut up peach into a very large drinking glass and proceed to drown it with some very good red table wine. We are tomatoed-out here. I don’t know if I can eat another one (well, yes, of course I can), but basil and almonds sounds like a plan.

  19. Kitty T

    I been looking forward to this for so long! Didn’t disappoint… only wish I was eating it too! Lots love XX

  20. Suse

    ‘Pesto doesn’t grow on trees’

    Ah, Rachel – thank you! So pleased to read your lovely fresh voice again.

    A pesto story, to distract from goulash: local deli sells fresh genovese pesto. I didn’t quite believe it was home made and asked what was in it: ‘Oh, we put in some herb and, you know, garlic and, oh, these little things.’ – doubtful, asks her colleague for help – ‘you know, the little pesto seeds’.

    • Been making many of your recipes for some time now. Made this one tonight. Never had a better pesto! Had been planning another trip to Rome this Fall, but is now postponed. This meal helped soothe the ache to be there. Thanks!

  21. Ben

    Sorry, who is this?

  22. Karen Lee

    Wow. I can’t believe I hung in longer than your brother. I could never quite bring myself to delete you. So happy you’re back. Your writing is simply beautiful.

  23. all right! rach is in da house.
    a joy to find
    almonds in pesto—yes yes yes.

  24. hi rachel! so happy to read your post this morning. (sounds so delicious.) oh my goodness. a broke things off with me last week. 6 and a half years. i remember you writing about your split, and thankfully mine is similar in that there is still much love and a strong friendship. these are sweet sad days, dealing with a busted heart. ack- i should write you an email. i’m being very good to myself. sending love, e.

  25. Betta

    welcome back!

  26. Angela

    So glad you’re back! Sure did miss your posts.

  27. laura

    Ben tornata. We missed you!

  28. lila

    Yippee! Welcome back.

  29. I’ll add my delight that you’re back to all the others. Off to buy the ingredients to make this tonight – seems a deliciously fitting way to use the first (late) little tomatoes that have finally ripened after many a day of watchful fretting.

  30. Glad this popped into my inbox as I was contemplating dinner….job done!!

  31. Kathleen

    I am so glad you are back up and writing, your blog is fantastic and I always enjoy reading it!

  32. Abigail

    You’re the one of 3 blogs I actually bookmarked, and all I can say is welcome back. It’s funny, although you don’t know me, every time I would check to see if you posted a new recipe and there was nothing I felt like I was wondering about a friend and if they were ok. With this post not only have you given me a good food idea you have reassured us all you are one tough cookie and making it back.

  33. It’s so nice to have you back! I’ve missed your beautiful writing and inspiring recipes.

    I don’t make much pesto, namely because the classic pesto alla genovese is over-used, by the tablespoon, here as a spread that accompanies many white cheese sandwiches. As a result it has succeeded in turning me off it entirely. Your post has managed to snap me out of that. I plan to make this pesto tonight for dinner.

  34. Edan

    What are you drinking there? Is that your lemonade? It looks fantastic.
    Your final photo leaves me desperate to sit down at your table and dig in.

  35. Katie

    I’m thrilled that you’re back. I finally learned what an RSS feeder is (is that right?). So, I added your site and hoped. Now here you are. Cant wait for more. Although in Chicago, I’m living in Europe in my mind so you have no idea how much I need your inspiration!

  36. I am so glad to see you posting again!! I did not delete your bookmark on my toolbar because I was just SURE you would be back. 🙂

    I am going to make this recipe- in the back of my mind I’ve always wondered if almonds could be used in pesto instead of pine nuts, I’m not a big fan of pine nuts and I love cooking with almonds in Indian dishes- definitely will do this.

    Our summer has been super hot, in fact we are about to break the record for most days over 100 degrees. 69 is the record, tomorrow we hit 70, whee! The only thing to do is celebrate it, so I will be attending a Hot Sauce festival this weekend. There’s just nothing else to do but roll around in the hot hot hotness. I entered my salsa fresca in the festival last year but it was a not-perfect batch (my salsa is different each time I make it) and I disappointed myself, not ready to try again. But I will have fun tasting everybody else’s hot sauce.

  37. So good to read your voice again!

    There’s a recipe I love in some little cookbook I picked up somewhere along the way that is a pesto made from roasted Roma tomatoes and almonds ~ realize now it’s very likely a spin on this classic.

    Also, the line “While your spaghetti in rolling around in plenty of well salted boiling water” reminded me that one of the things I’ve always wanted to do is be on vacation where I can walk to the water source with a pot in hand and cook my pasta directly in salty-fresh ocean water. I have a romantic notion that they maybe do that still somewhere in Italy…

  38. SRM

    Thrilled that you are back! It wouldn’t have mattered if there wasn’t a recipe. Do hope your summer has been a good one.

  39. Louise Couch

    Hurrah! You’re back! Lovely recipe and great to read your writing again.

  40. Caroline

    I made this and was surprised by how it seemed both lighter and creamier than regular pesto. I think I like it better!

  41. Beautiful pasta and what a great simple recipe. I have been in a pesto making frenzy down here in Nashville where there is a “bumper crop” of tomatoes right now. I add heirlooms to some of my pesto batches. Thanks for sharing your recipe.

  42. emma in seattle

    glad you made it back to the blog – your missives from italy would have been missed!

  43. Rachel, che felicità, sarai una mamma meravigliosa!
    Complimenti e (mi permetto) anche un abbraccio di cuore!
    Elena 😀

  44. foodfly

    Glad to see you writing again Rachel, it’s good to have you back.

    By the way, where did you get that gorgeous pestle & mortar from?


  45. Pingback: Recipes to Try | Live and Learn

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