by Corin Hirsch
Ah, October. Crisp days and high time to roast squash, quaff cider, and ... make pesto?
Our first bonafide frost this week meant a bittersweet harvest of my remaining basil and tomatoes. As I hauled them inside, I wondered how to repurpose them. As serendipity would have it, we had just received a copy of Ed Behr's new book, The Art of Eating Cookbook: Recipes From the First 25 Years. In this elegant tome, Behr has included dozens of fundamental recipes of mostly French and Italian origin, many introduced by notes on history and technique.
During a phone interview, Behr had kinds words for charcuterie, chestnut soup and traditional Ragù Bolognese. He then dubbed Pesto Trapanese, a western Sicilian version of the classic sauce, "one of the world's most underappreciated recipes."
At home, I thumbed to page 74 and read about this twist on pesto that uses almonds instead of pignoli, eschews cheese, and includes tomatoes. Like many great Italian recipes, it was simple and delicious. Best of all, it relied on the two things I had in abundance.
Behr is a proponent of good-quality olive oil — it can go rancid easily, he says — and I sniffed mine before dribbling it into a food processor with almonds, eventually throwing in a few handsful of basil and peeled tomatoes. Spooned over gemelli, it was a creamy, garlicky, last-gasp-of-summer feast.
Someone else out there must still be swimming in basil. For you, here's Ed Behr's recipe. As in his book, I haven't included a photo of the final dish. "I think it's almost freeing not to have photos," he says.
Pesto Trapanese (Raw Tomato-Basil Pesto)
courtesy of Ed Behr
About 1/4 cup peeled almonds
2 to 4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 to 1 cup basil leaves
1/2 cup excellent, fresh-tasting olive oil
4 to 6 ripe red summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 pounds of dried pasta
To peel the almonds, put them in boiling water for half a minute, remove them with a slotted spoon, and then pop them out of their skins and dry them. Prepare the tomatoes by scoring an X in the blossom end and putting them into the same pot of boiling water for 30 to 45 seconds; then cut out the core of each and pull of the skin. (You can pull off the skin of an extremely ripe tomato almost as easily without any blanching at all.) Slice the tomato in half; with your little finger, scoop out the seeds and gel and discard them. Compared with a food processor, a mortar produces superior texture — more uneven and slippery. If you have one of the capacity of at least a quart (a liter), use it. Giuseppe Coria, the great recorder of Sicilian recipes, wrote, "Let the sauce rest for as long as it takes to cook the pasta."
In a large mortar, mash the almonds to a paste with the pestle and remove them. Put in the garlic and the salt, and reduce those to a paste; then add the basil and reduce it. Return the almonds to the mortar, add the olive oil, and turn with the pestle until the whole becomes creamy. Add the tomatoes little by little, mashing each time so as to retain the emulsion.
Or, if you are using a food processor, reduce the almonds, garlic, salt and olive oil to as smooth a paste as possible. Only then — to avoid a brown color, an utter purée, and a loss of flavor — add the basil and pulse several times, and then add the tomatoes and pulse several times, and don't pulse again.
With either method, taste the sauce and season it with salt if needed and grind in pepper. Cook the pasta and drain it well, then mix it immediately and thoroughly with the room-temperature raw sauce in a large warm bowl, and serve it in warm individual bowls. Because you can't serve the sauce chilled and you can't heat it, use it within about 2 hours (the flavor is good for several hours — left overnight in the refrigerator, it largely deteriorates). Serves 6.