Pesto alla siciliana

This is the fourth and final post on the Tomato, each an entry in the Washington Post’s 2011 Top Tomato recipe contest.  Previous posts include our first entry, Pomodori al riso; second entry, Panzanella; and third entry, Melanzane e pomodorini.  We also entered our most popular post, Pasta fredda.

We find simple pleasure in upsetting the natural order of things.  The unanticipated, that which catches us slightly off guard, is good for the mind and for the soul.  We’re talking about nothing overt or drastic – just small things, minor interruptions in the routine of our days.  It keeps us slightly off-balance, forces the senses and the mind to engage, wards against getting stuck in a rut.

Pesto alla siciliana is just that – a simple and unexpected deviation from the dark green basil-pine nut-garlic-parmesean sauce that we’ve come to know as pesto.  The word pesto comes from pestello, or pestle in English, and refers to any combination of ingredients ground together by mortar and pestle.

We’ve mentioned before that Italian cuisine is regionally-specific.  In the rest of the world, we think of Italian food.  In Italy, food varies by region, influenced heavily by the climate, the land, and the plants and animals that inhabit it.  The basil, pine nuts, garlic, and parmesean sauce which we call pesto is actually pesto alla genovese, originating in Liguria, where the city of Genova is found.

The south of Italy has provided a few different variations of pesto, making good use of the foods that grow in that sun-drenched part of the country.  From Calabria we have pesto alla calabrese, with roasted red peppers, eggplant, ricotta and just a bit of tomato.  Pesto alla siciliana leaves out the red peppers and the eggplant, giving greater emphasis to the tomato and ricotta while keeping the pine nuts common to the genovese version.  The Sicilian city of Trapani yeilds yet another version, pesto alla trapanese, with tomatoes, almonds, and pecorino cheese.

We based our version on the classic pesto alla siciliana recipe, but borrowed the almonds from the trapanese version and used ricotta salata along with fresh ricotta and parmesean for a more complex cheese flavor.

Ingredients
1 medium tomato
50 g. fresh ricotta
25 g. ricotta salata
25 g. parmesean
25 g. pine nuts
25 g. almonds
1 small bunch basil
½ clove garlic
1½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. olive oil
optional – 1 tsp. crushed red pepper

Cut tomato into small pieces and place them into a food processor.  Add the fresh ricotta. Cut the ricotta salata and parmesean into small pieces, and add the to the food processor.  Add the pine nuts and almonds, and then the basil.  Chop the garlic and add it as well, along with the salt, olive oil and crushed red pepper if desired.

Blend in the food processor until smooth.  Toss with short pasta cooked to al dente, and serve with a dusting of fresh grated parmesean on top.

Notes

  • We used a medium-sized locally grown beefsteak tomato.  You can experiment with different tomatoes, including cherry tomatoes.
  • Go out of your way to get good, fresh ricotta.  The tub at the supermarket should be a last option.  We used goat milk ricotta from Broder’s in south Minneapolis.
  • Ricotta salata is a hard Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk.  It is white in color and dense, somewhat similar to a feta.  You may have to look around to find it.  We purchased ours at our local Costco. If you come up short, just double the amount of parmesean.
  • We prefer pesto alla siciliana on short pasta.  For this meal, we opted for a pasta also made in the south of Italy, fusillata casareccia made by Pastificio G. Di Martino, which we picked up at our local Kowalski’s Market.  Any short pasta, such as penne, will do just fine.

Wine Pairing
We recommend a Nero d’Avola with pesto alla siciliana, as the Nero d’Avola is an indigenous Sicilian grape.  This is a well-balanced red wine with nice acidity that complements the pesto’s cheese and tomato base.  The wine has a fruit forward approach that makes it food-friendly, but it is also very pleasant to enjoy by itself.  We drank a 2008 Nero d’Avola from the producer Ajelllo.