Pesto Trapanese

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[My friend Dara Bratt–an award-winning filmmaker and unabashed bon vivant–positively pounced when I mentioned “Sauce Week” and here’s her delightful contribution. Take it away, Dara!]

Recently, I had a girls’ night at a fairly new restaurant in Brooklyn called “Rucola”. The conversation was great, and the food equally impressive, the standout dish being the pasta, which my friend ordered; “Garganelli – Tomatoes – almond pesto, cherry tomatoes, zucchini.”

It was so light that the impact of flavor was shockingly impressive. A pesto with almonds at the core instead of pine nuts?! Cheaper? Healthier? Sold!

My friend wanted to know more: How could she make this at home? And the lovely waitress graciously shared what seemed like a too simple recipe, calling it a “Trapanese” pesto, and whispering that the secret is roasting the tomatoes before they’re pureed.

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The thing was, it wasn’t a very tomato driven sauce. Personally, I am drawn more to the olive oil, wine based sauces, that gently coat the pasta yet deliver full on taste. That’s why I was so impressed. We left vowing to try this at home.

This is my home the night the challenge began.

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But before that happened, I went to Franny’s with another girlfriend and was delighted to see “Mafalde with pesto trapanese and pecorino romano” on the menu. Bingo! I ordered it without hesitation and had a pizza for dessert. (I can’t not have the pizza)

And while the highlight was the homemade wide noodle, the sauce was definitely more tomato focused. So now I was intrigued. Two fantastic restaurants; two very different Trapanese pestos.

More research yielded many many variations. I won’t lie: this is my second attempt. My first attempt, a week or so ago, was quite successful, although the sauce was somewhat a middle ground between the two I had tasted, yielding a rose color. Kieran was happy since he prefers a heavier sauce while I declared another future attempt.

Fast forward to Sauce Week, providing the perfect opportunity to do so.

This is an easy recipe. Like, super easy. That’s easy in a “few ingredients way, and not a long time to prep” way.

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With so many recipes to choose from, I used the Nigella Trapanese pesto as a base, improvising as I went along.

In my first attempt, I followed her instructions to puree all the ingredients together at once, which not only caused my Cuisinart to explode, but turned my tomatoes to water while leaving the nuts still too chunky. (Although Kieran thought it offered good “crunch.”)

This time around, I pulsed the ¼ cup of almonds separately and the resulting consistency was perfect.

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I roasted cherry tomatoes (1 cup) for approximately 30 minutes, sharing the oven with my side of roasted broccoli (Olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, chili flakes, fresh dill, S&P).

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Halfway through, I started to boil the water.

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I was cruising along. In the Cuisinart, I pureed ¼ cup olive oil, 2 garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons capers, 6 anchovies (my secret ingredient to everything), a few basil leaves, and some currants (currants or raisins were listed in a few recipes but not frequently so I used them sparingly)

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I added the mixture to the almonds.

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As the pasta was almost ready, I took out the tomatoes and pureed them.

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Then I added some pasta water. Mistake. Instead of using 2 tablespoons, I used a soup ladle. Silly me. Suddenly, my almost perfect sauce seemed too watery. The timer went off—the pasta was done, my sauce in disrepair. I made the quick decision to mash more almonds, and puree a few more cherry tomatoes with basil, to soak up the liquid. It worked.

However, the pesto tasted too fishy; my secret ingredient wasn’t so secret. Strange, because the first time around, I used bigger anchovies and didn’t have this problem. Was it because I used an already opened can? Now I went completely off the books, adding lemon juice and more currants to kill the fish taste. The tart and sweet provided the right balance, but I was a little worried that I was losing my way along the Trapanese experiment.

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The final result was good. As Kieran affirmed, “Nothing wrong with that.”

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But truth be told, I actually think my first rose version was better.

I’m trying to be very honest; the more ingredients I added, the less I enjoyed it. The next time, I’m going back to basics. No anchovies, no currants. (I think)

Perhaps before my next attempt, I’ll revisit Rucola and Franny’s in even more awe.

Turns out, the simplest recipe is the hardest to master. But I’m not giving up.

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