I'm usually suspicious of any alterations to traditional basil pesto—those fancy, misguided ideas like trading out pine nuts for pistachios. "Don't mess with perfection," is my feeling. Except in many cases, these other pestos aren't trying to mess up a good thing—they're traditions of their own. Pine nuts, basil, Parmesan, and olive oil may be the most popular and arguably the most sublime of these concoctions (known officially as pesto Genovese), but there are others great ones, like this one from Sicily: pesto Trapanese.
Other than replacing pine nuts with almonds, it's not a sweeping change. But the recipe also adds cherry tomatoes, and they offer a little sweetness. Their crushed juices also help counteract the relative dryness of the almonds, which, unlike softer pine nuts, refuse to give themselves up to the pesto—they remain distinct and crunchy, adding a wonderful textural interest to the dish that pesto Genovese sometimes lacks. I found that a little pasta water was the essential step to keep it from drying out too much and helping to bind everything together.
What are your favorite non-Genovese pestos?
About the author: Blake Royer lives in Brooklyn and spends most of his free time cooking and writing about it here at Serious Eats and on The Paupered Chef. From 9 to 5 weekdays, he works as an assistant book editor in Manhattan.
- 1 pound spaghetti
- 1/4 pound almonds, skin on or off
- 1 clove garlic, peeled
- 4 large handfuls fresh basil leaves
- 5 oz grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
- Good olive oil
- 1 pound cherry tomatoes, blistered in a dry skillet
Bring a large pot of salty water to boil and cook the spaghetti until al dente.
Meanwhile, warm the almonds in a dry pan until just lightly toasted, then transfer to a food processor and process into a coarse powder. Transfer to a large bowl. Add the basil and garlic with a little oil to the food processor, blend, then stir into the almonds.
Toss the cooked pasta with the pesto, reserving some pasta water to add (if necessary) to keep it from drying out. Serve immediately.