Join me in the PRIMO PESTO PASTAVERSE
GET THAT WATER BOILING.
Springtime is here, and you know what that means. It’s time for me to kill about a half-dozen basil plants over the next few months, for I am the world’s worst gardener.
My basil-growing dreams always end with me shamefully tossing a plant’s corpse in the compost bin a few weeks after buying it, regardless of how much I water it or expose it to light.
I am the grim reaper of the herb plant aisle, and my newfound affinity for this Pesto alla Trapanese pasta recipe should have every basil plant in Virginia shaking in its boots. I did not know tomato-based pestos existed until I came across a version in a Milk Street cookbook, but they’re outstanding.
This recipe answers the three main questions I ask before I add something to my regular dinner rotation:
Is it vaguely healthy?
Is it mostly affordable?
Does it provide a bounty of leftovers?
With more nuts, tomatoes and basil in it than anything else, I’m confident this isn’t a dish that would give you scurvy. If you want to be capital-H healthy, you have my blessing to sub out or nix the sausage.
Subbing almonds in for pignoli nuts cuts the cost of this way, way down. God bless pine nuts as they are a cheat code for flavor on anything you put them on, but at ~$25/pound, the juice ain’t worth the squeeze. I will take the almonds that cost a fraction of that, thank you very much.
Lastly, I can get at least five meals out of this, a more than satisfactory yield. I’d even argue this dish gets better after a few days in the fridge as the pesto and pasta have more time to get to know one another.
Having a food processor that can really bring the ruckus is key here — the almonds gotta get fine enough to not Captain Crunch the roof of your mouth. Perhaps the most misunderstood of the kitchen hardware, the food processor can be a goddamn workhorse if you ask it to be. I recommend investing in a solid one.
Anyway, enough chest-clearing. Follow me, let’s grub.
PRIMO PESTO PASTA ALLA PICHAEL
1 lb. penne or rigatoni, plus 1 cup pasta water
1 cup slivered almonds
3 garlic cloves
~2 pints cherry and/or grape tomatoes (I use a mix)
1 1/2 cup fresh basil (approximately 20-25 large leaves)
1/3 cup parmesan cheese
1/2 cup olive oil, plus an additional 1 tbsp. for toasting the almonds
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. fennel seeds
1 lb. hot Italian sausage, broken into bite-sized pieces
Bring a pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta until about a minute shy of your preferred firmness and strain, reserving about 1 cup of the pasta water.
Pour 1 tbsp. of olive oil on a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the almonds and toast for ~4 minutes, reducing heat as needed. The goal is to get them mostly golden, though I like a few to get slightly burnt.
Set the almonds aside. Bring the pan up to medium-high heat and brown the sausage until it’s cooked through.
As that’s happening, cut a solid chunk of a parmesan (or pecorino) block into Lego brick-sized cubes. Toss them in the food processor and chop until fine.
Empty the cheese out of the processor and put in the almonds. Turn it on puree until the almonds are the same texture as panko breadcrumbs, about 2 minutes.
Gradually add the tomatoes, garlic, cheese, basil, red pepper flakes, fennel seeds and remaining olive oil (in that order) to the processor and puree until incorporated, another 2 minutes or so.
In a separate pot on medium-low heat, add the cooked pasta and sausage. Scrape the pesto out of the processor and mix it all together. Pour in the pasta water as needed to thin out the pesto until it’s your preferred viscosity.
Plate and garnish with additional salt, pepper and grated parmesan.
Eating pasta outdoors with a cold beer on a spring night is one of those special simple pleasures I will never grow tired of. The world is a proper fucking mess right now, so I think some gastro-escapism is needed.
Hold on, who the hell took my seat?!…