A kitchen in Rome Tomatoes make pesto alla trapanese a softer sauce than its Ligurian cousin, and is perfect draped around ribbon pasta
For years I made pesto using an immersion blender. This was fine when I still had the tall, narrow container that made the push-plunge easy; less so when, after the death of that container, I was trying to blend in bowls and jars. One attempt at making a sauce version of ajo blanco, ending in a flying bowl and bent blade, convinced me that if I was going to continue reducing nuts and herbs into sauce quickly, I needed another appliance. So four weeks ago I went to an elettrodomestici in Testaccio and bought myself a little blender that looks like a cross between a UFO and a model of a building in Brasilia. It is basic a plastic bowl with a nifty blade and a plunging top that you press like a salad spinner. It is also a whizz. I have been using it with an enthusiasm and devotion I havent felt since I got a pair of hair crimpers in 1984.
My new blender sits on the work surface under the cupboard, which contains dried things and nuts, and near the sink, where there is usually a (lately wilting) basil plant, which means I barely need move to make the recipe of the moment: pesto alla trapanese. Pesto simply means pounded sauce, the most famous of which is alla genovese the basil, pine nut, pecorino pesto from Genova in Liguria. The food writer Fabrizia Lanza notes only Ligurians follow strict rules when making pesto; to everyone else, pesto is subjective. For the most part, I agree, although I have met a Trapanese who is just as single-minded about their pesto of almonds, garlic, basil, tomatoes and olive oil, which is as it should be. It is wonderful to know the origins of recipes, especially when they are steeped in history and tradition, providing a portal into a culture and way of life. It is also wonderful to take ingredients as good as almonds, aromatic basil and tomatoes, garlic and as much olive oil as you see fit and to combine them until the taste and texture is pleasing to you. As my friend Itamar says: Life is complicated; cooking shouldnt be … at least not most of the time.
It was in Fabrizias kitchen near Vallelunga in the belly of Sicily that I first ate pesto alla trapanese. It was made by Fabrizias kitchen right arm, an exceptional cook called Enza (whose aubergine I will be writing about next week). Enzas pesto alla trapanese is a soft, gloopy sauce, but has texture and is speckled with red and green, and tastes like an assertive basil pesto softened by almonds, with a garlic kick (whether that is a one-, two- or three-clove kick is up to you). The pleasure is in not really measuring: a big handful of basil leaves, another of almonds, one or two cloves of garlic, a pinch of salt and a good amount of olive oil (say, 120ml), which is then blended in your appliance of choice (or mortar) until it resembles a coarse rubble. Add three peeled tomatoes, then blend everything again until fairly smooth and creamy. As always, taste and adjust before tossing though pasta.
A Sicilian pasta shape called busiate long ringlets like ribbon round a maypole is ideal for pesto alla trapanese; otherwise fusilli, caserecce spaghetti or simply the packet that is nearest to the nuts in the cupboards. The tomato means the pesto is loose, but may still benefit from a splash of pasta cooking water. If you would like cheese on top, salted ricotta or pecorino work. The day we had pesto alla trapanese at Fabrizias, Enza also made some courgettes, sliced to a few millimetres thick, brushed with olive oil and cooked on a ridged griddle until soft and golden, then dusted with salted ricotta. Whether you want a few courgettes on top, beside your pasta or after as another course is subjective.
Pasta with almond, basil and tomato pesto and grilled courgettes
Prep 10 min
Cook 25 min
For the pesto
A medium bunch of basil (about 70g)
100g blanched almonds
13 garlic cloves
150ml olive oil
300g ripe tomatoes, peeled
500g dried pasta (e.g. busiate, caserecce, spaghetti)
For the courgettes
3 medium courgettes, sliced on an angle
Pecorino, salted ricotta or parmesan
First, make the pesto: pull the leaves from the basil and put it into a food processor with the almonds, garlic, a pinch of salt and olive oil. Blend until you have a coarse paste. Add the tomatoes and blend again until you have the consistency you like. Taste and add salt as needed.
Bring a large pan of water to a boil, add salt, stir, and then add the pasta and cook until al dente. Meanwhile, cut the courgettes into 5mm-thick slices, on an angle if they are small so as to get longer slices.
Heat a ridged griddle, rub the slices with olive oil and grill first on one side, then the other, until soft and embossed with golden colour. You may like to brush them with more oil as you go. Lift the griddled slices on to a plate and sprinkle with grated cheese while they are still warm.
When the pasta is ready, put half the pesto in the bottom of a large bowl. Drain the pasta, saving a cup of the cooking water, add the pasta to the pesto and toss, adding more pesto as you go. Add a splash of the cooking water to loosen everything, so the sauce coats the pasta. Divide the pasta between bowls, either putting a few slices of courgette on each, or passing them around so everyone can help themselves.