One of the great joys of summer is the appearance of juicy, ripe tomatoes in the marketplace. Tomatoes that, for once, actually taste like tomatoes! And, of course, think about tomatoes and you’ll immediately think about pasta. There’s something about fresh tomatoes and pasta that was just meant to be.
Pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil is a summer classic, but there are other options. One of the best is this Sicilian cousin to pesto alla genovese. You will immediately recognize the family resemblance, of course, what with the presence of fresh basil, garlic and nuts (this time blanched almonds rather than pignolis). But true to its southern roots, this pesto stars abundant ripe tomato.
NB: The main recipe in this post is for the easy-peasy modern version of this pesto. The more traditional mortar-and-pestle recipe, which actually produces a remarkably different dish from the same ingredients, is described in the Notes.
Ingredients (serves 4-6 persons)
400g (1/2 lb.) ripe, fresh tomatoes (see Notes)
2-3 cloves of garlic
A handful of fresh basil
A handful of blanched almonds (see Notes)
Salt and pepper
100g (4 oz.) grated pecorino cheese
400g (1/2 lb.) of pasta of your choice (see Notes)
Make your pesto by adding tomatoes, garlic, basil, almond, salt and pepper in the food processor. Process on ‘pulse’ until the ingredients are well chopped, then with the motor running, add olive oil in a stream until the mixture comes together and forms a smooth sauce. (The almonds should not become completely pulverized, however, but retain some of their crunch.)
Cook your pasta al dente. Drain and pour into a warmed serving bowl. Add your pesto and mix well, then add the cheese and mix again. (If the pasta is a little dry, add some pasta water to loosen it up.)
Serve immediately, perhaps with a dollop of extra pesto on top, and with additional grated cheese in a small bowl for those who want it.
NOTES: If using mature fresh tomatoes, you should peel them and remove the seeds before adding them to the food processor. Otherwise, your pesto will be too watery and have unpleasant bits of skin in it. Tomatoes are easily peel if the skin is loosened a bit by a quick blanch in boiling water (no more than 30 seconds or so) or by charring the skin over a flame as you would a bell pepper. You can also, as pictured below, use small grape or cherry tomatoes, which have tender skins and very little by way of seeds and water inside. They need no particular prep before they are added to the rest of the pesto.
Blanched almonds are commonplace in US supermarkets (they are used extensively in baking here) but if you can’t find them, then take regular almonds, shell them and then blanch them for a few minutes. Their skins should then slip off easily.
You want a nice, fruity, deep green kind of olive oil for this dish. This being a Sicilian dish, olive oil from Sicily would be perfect, of course, but they make similar olive oil in Puglia and that would certainly do quite fine, as would any similar olive oil from elsewhere.
The traditional recipe for this dish using a mortar and pestle produces a rather different result—which is why many traditionally minded recipes will warn you never, even to use a blender or food processor to make pesto alla trapenese. You grind up the garlic with a bit of salt, then the almonds, then the basil, just as you would a traditional pesto alla genovese. The tomatoes is not ground up with the rest, but chopped into little cubes and mixed with the pesto. The texture is, of course, quite different: he tomato retains more of its original character and the pesto has considerably more chunkiness to it. And it looks quite different on the plate, with contrasting red and green bits. Nothing prevents you, of course, from mixing modern and traditional methods by making your pesto with a food processor but folding in hand-chopped tomato to it at the end.
The traditional pasta for this pesto is the home-made Sicilian pasta called busiati. But this pesto is delicious with linguine, spaghetti or even short pastas like penne or farfalle. In fact, if you ask me, it goes well with pretty much any pasta you feel like having.
There are some variations to this dish that you can try at your leisure to see if you like. I’ve seen some recipes that call for a bit a red pepper which is actually quite nice. Others, call for topping your pasta with ricotta salata or fried bread crumbs rather than the pecorino—both very Sicilian touches. In summer a bit of mint along with the basil makes for a nice change of pace.